Tag Archives: Brut y Brenhinedd

King Arthur – Man, Myth … or Both? – Part Eight


As I mentioned in earlier parts of this blog, the same ‘all or nothing’ argument goes for the battles listed in the H.B. as far as Dumville, Higham and Green are concerned (although Green concedes some may have happened but have been fought by someone else). 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 mythologized 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?

Higham argues that the format of the battles was merely taken from a known battle poem of Gwynedd: Canu Cadwallon ap Cadfan. Cadwallon has 16 battles to Arthur’s 12 (2007, pp.145-147). Nick Higham says:


Christopher Gidlow counters:


The Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith is sometimes brought in as an example here. In this 9th century poem about him, the fictitious 7th century poet (scop) is given travels all over the known world (over 50 places!) or knows of them. Arthur isn’t; he’s given nine locations, twelve battles, and all in Britain … as far as we know. (You can read the Widsith poem here: ). So he’s hardly a comparison at all.

If we look at the point of this section in the H.B. and why Arthur was used, it raises questions that, to me, Dumville et al do not address: whoever was placed at this point in the H.B. would have to be known as a ‘Saxon’ fighter, and possibly the victor at Badon. Unless we’ve lost the stories that included this information, the Arthur of the Welsh pre-Galfridian tradition did neither (unless we can count Llongborth). Nor is he anywhere in this tradition depicted as the leader of battle for kings of the Britons or the victor at Badon. If he was never seen as doing any of these things in Welsh tradition, what would be the point in using him or listing some mythical battles that his Welsh audience would have known were not against ‘Saxons’?

Let’s look at the battles in more detail and what was/is known about them. First the Harleian version 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. 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.”

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.”

Let’s take them one at a time, and rather than thinking about where these battles might have been, I want to consider where the H.B.’s North Walian readers might have thought these battles to be:

  1. At the mouth of (or a confluence of) the River Glein/Gleni. (Nothing known. Could be in Northumbria, Lincolnshire or Sussex … or other locations. Enemy unknown, but if the Welsh audience took this to mean Northumbria, then the enemy would be Northumbrian (Bernician) Angles - Angles would still be called ‘Saxons’).
  2. Four battles above the River Dubglas/Duglas in the region of Linnuis (Linnuis is generally taken to be Lindsey=Lincolnshire, but not all agree. However, this is where the H.B’s readers would most likely think them to have been. Enemy may have been taken to be Northumbrian (Deiran) Angles or East Angles).
  3. Above the River Bassas. (Several locations given. Said to be taken from Eglwysseu Bassa (Churches of Bassa) in the Canu Heledd poems. Apart from the difference between Bassa and Bassas, there is no River Bassas mentioned in these poems, only the Tren, Trydonwy, Twrch, Marchnwy, Geirw, Alwen and Hafren (Severn). In both poetic cases Bassa and Bassas are odd, none British names. The battles in Canu Heledd were against Northumbrian Angles. The H.B.’s audience may have taken this to have been against Northumbrian or Mercian Angles)
  4. At Coit Celidon (Wood of Celidon). (Thought to mean a woodland in the Scottish borders, but not by all. Green identifies this with the mythical battle of Coit Godue, although why it wouldn’t be called Coit Godue is anyone’s guess if this was the case. Enemy unknown, but if the H.B’s audience equated Celidon with the north they would have taken the enemy to be Northumbrian (Bernician) Angles).
  5. At Castello Guinnion/Gurnion. (Many identify this with the Roman fort of Vinuium (Binchester), although it is argued that this doesn’t work etymologically speaking by Jackson,(Once Again Arthur’s Battles, Modern Philology, 1945), but Rivet thinks it shouldn’t be reject out of hand (The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 1992). There is a Cerrig Gwynion in Wales, which is an old Iron Age hillfort between Llandudno and Bangor … not to mention the not far away hillfort of Bwrdd Arthur. Would the North Walian reader take it to be this location or Binchester? Enemy unknown, but may have been taken to be Northumbrian (Deiran) Angles if in the north or against Irish raider if in Wales).
  6. Urbe Ligionis (City of Legions). (Generally thought to be either Chester or Caerleon. Said to be a borrowing of the Battle of Chester of c. 613; a battle the Britons lost to the Northumbrians. This battle is mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work as Legecester (the Anglo-Saxon version of Fort of the Legion) and in the Welsh version, the Brut y Brenhinedd, the battle is called Perllan Fangor (Bangor Orchard). Bede calls Chester civitas legionum and Gildas calls somewhere urbs legionum (possibly Caerleon?). If Chester was known as Urbe Ligionis, this naming wasn’t used in any of these other works so Nennius didn’t get it directly from Gildas or Bede. In the Vatican recension of the H.B. it is glossed as meaning Cair Lion in Welsh. This is interesting because perhaps that should come from Castra Ligionis? There is some argument as to the difference between urbe (or urbs as used by Gildas) and cair/caer, and whether this could actually mean somewhere else, such as York, which was a civil colonia as well as a fortress and an administrative ‘city’. But most favour Chester or Caerleon even though the two mentions in the H.B. should mean Cair ligion/lion=Fortress of the Legion and Urbe Ligionis=City of the Legion (see P.J.C Filed’s article at ). If the readers thought this was Chester it would have been taken to be Mercian or Northumbrian Angles; if they thought it Caerleon they may have thought Mercians).
  7. On the banks of the Tribruit/Treuroit. (Various locations given. Argued to be a mythical battle because of its mention in the poem Pa Gur yv y Porthaur? and the story of Culhwch ac Olwen. Not ‘Saxon’?).
  8. At the mountain of Breguoin/Agned. (Argued to be a battle Urien Rheged  fought, called “cellawr Brewyn” or ‘cells of Brewyn’. Some identify the location with the Roman fort of Bremetennacum (Ribchester, Lancashire), but, once again, the etymology doesn’t work. (Rivet & Smith 1979, p.277). A better candidate might be Bremenium (High Rochester, Northumbria). Urien’s enemy in this battle is unknown although the “Angles” (‘Saxons’) are mentioned later in the poem, but other British and Gael enemies are also inferred. The battle merely appears in a list of seven in a Taliesin poem, but isn’t singled out. (See: ). It would most likely to have been taken to be Northumbrian Angles).
  9. At Mount Badon: (Generally located in the south around Bath/Badbury, but also Lincolnshire (Green) and other locations. Known battle against ‘Saxons’, as mentioned by Gildas in the 6th century. Dated between 483 and 516. The H.B.’s readers would most likely take the enemy to have been Wessex (West Saxons), unless they knew (or thought) otherwise).

NB: These English kingdoms (Mercian, Northumbria, etc.) wouldn’t have existed in the late 5th century, but the H.B.’s audience in general wouldn’t have known this and would think of the known kingdoms of the time. It is interesting to note that, to the H.B.’s readers at least, many of these battles may have been seen to be against Mercian or Northumbrian Angles. These were who the North Walians had had run-ins with, especially the latter in earlier times, whilst the south had problems with Saxon Wessex. Was this the reason why Arthur and/or these battles were chosen? If so, then Badon (if it was in the south) may not have been as important to them as his other battles. (Of course, I’m referring to who the H.B.’s readers might take the battles to have been against, not who they actually might have been against). It would mean the H.B. did three things: 1) showed Arthur defeated the Northumbrian’s (and Mercian’s) ancestors, 2) showed Cadwallon (died 634) of Gwynedd later defeated the Northumbrians, 3) refuted the Northumbrian monk Beds’s view of the Britons. Was this the point of Arthur? A call to unity as of old against the same old foe, whilst the Mercian were busy with the Danes?

(Alex Woolf, wonders if the genealogists have inserted Bede’s Cadwallon into the pedigree of the Kings of Gwynedd? He forwards that Bede’s Cadwallon might be Catguallaun liu, son of Guitcun, grandson of Sawyl Penuchel who were rulers in the north. Woolf, 2004).

The second part of this section will continue looking at the battles.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your thoughts, comments and corrections.



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