The Historia Brittonum ‘History of the Britons’ is an early 9th century Latin text composed in Wales and usually attributed to the author Nennius (though questions of its authorship remain). The text is essentially a compilation of information from various, sometimes contradictory, sources. As a work of narrative history the Historia is of limited value, since the text is dressed up with legendary and fantastical elements, such as the connections with the Classical and Biblical worlds. However, many of its characters and events can be confirmed from other sources, and it is of especial interest to Celticists as it contains a number of British place and personal names, including some from the Old North.
Notes from the Historia
|•||The 33 cities of Britain:||ch.7|
|i. Cair ebrauc|
ii. Cair ceint
iii. Cair gurcoc
iv. Cair guor thegern
v. Cair gusteint
vi. Cair guoranegon
vii. Cair segeint
viii. Cair guin truis
ix. Cair merdin
x. Cair peris
xi. Cair lion
xii. Cair mencipit
xiii. Cair caratauc
xiv. Cair ceri
xv. Cair gloui
xvi. Cair luilid
xviii. Cair daun
xix. Cair britoc
xx. Cair menguaid
xxi. Cair mauiguid
xxii. Cair ligion
xxiii. Cair guent
xxiv. Cair collon
xxv. Cair londein
xxvi. Cair guorcon
xxvii. Cair lerion
xxviii. Cair drait hou
xxix. Cair pensavelcoit
xxx. Cair teim
xxxi. Cair urnahc
xxxii. Cair celernion
xxxiii. Cair loit coit
|i. York (W. Efrog < Br. *Eburācon)|
ii. Canterbury (W. Caergaint < Br. *Cantjo-)
iv. ‘Vortigern’s fort’, possibly in Carmarthenshire
v. ‘Constantius’ fort’. Gildas mentions Constantius of Dumnonia (south west England).
vi. Worcester (W. Caerwrangon < a tribal name *Wigoran)
vii. Caernarfon (W. Afon Seiont ‘River S.’ < Br. *Segont-)
viii.The name may contain Br. *Wentā (see xxiii. below)
ix. Carmarthen (W. Caerfyrddin < Br. *Moridūnon)
x. Unknown. Connection with Llanberis and Nant Beris in Snowdonia is possible, though naming a fort after a saint would be unusual. There is no real reason to connect it with Portchester, which has often been suggested.
xi. Caerleon or Chester, both known to the Romans as Castra Legionis and to the Welsh as Caerllion.
xii. St Albans (< L. municipitas ‘municipality’)
xiii. ‘Caradog’s fort’. Hardly Catterick, which was known in Welsh as Catraeth. There is a Caer Caradog fort near Church Stretton, Shropshire.
xiv. Cirencester (possibly < Br. *Cornjon)
xv. Gloucester (W. Caerloyw < Br. *Glɛ̄won)
xvi. Carlisle (W. Caerliwelydd < Br. *Luguwaljon)
xvii. Grantchester, named for the River Grant (now Cam)
xviii. Doncaster (< Br. *Dānon ‘place on the R. Don)
xix. Unknown. Hardly Bristol, which has been suggested and comes from OE. brycg stōw ‘place at a bridge’.
xxii. (see xi.)
xxiii. Either Winchester (L. Venta Belgarum) or Caerwent (L. Venta Silurum). Caistor St Edmund in Norfolk is another possibility (L. Venta Icenorum).
xxiv. Colchester, named after the R. Colne
xxv. London (W. Lundain < Br. *Lōndonjon)
xxvi. Wroxeter (< Br. *Wiroconjon)
xxvii. Leicester (recorded as Ligera ceaster in 917)
xxix. Penselwood, Somerset, is formally attractive, especially since W. coed means ‘wood’, but the name is only recorded as (la) Penne before the 14th century when it becomes Penne in Selewood. The addition is English, meaning ‘willow wood’ but British name Coit Maur (W. coed mawr ‘great wood’) is recorded in the 9th century for the same place.
xxx. Unknown. Perhaps somewhere connected with the R. Teign.
xxxiii. Lichfield (W. Caerlwytgoed < Br. *Lētocɛ̄ton)
|•||The people of Britain: the Scotti [Scots/Irish], the Picti [Picts], the Saxones [Saxons], and the antiqui Brittones [ancient Britons].||7|
|•||The three considerable islands of Britain: Gueith [Wight], Eubonia or Manau [Isle of Man], Orch [Orkney].||8|
|•||Severus orders a wall and rampart to be built between the Britons, Scots and Picts “extending across the island from sea to sea, in length one hundred and thirty three miles; and it is called in the British language Guaul“.1||24|
|“The above-mentioned Severus constructed it of rude workmanship in length 132 miles; i.e. from Penguaul,2 which village is called in Scottish Cenail,3 in English Peneltun, to the mouth of the river Cluth4 and Cairpentaloch,5 where this wall terminates”.|
| [1. The Antonine Wall, W. gwawl ‘wall, rampart’. 2. W. pen gwawl ‘head of the wall’. 3. Kinneil, G. ceann fàil. 4. River Clyde. 5. Kirkintilloch.|
This passage is of particular importance to studies of the Old North, giving an insight into the way the language communities of Cumbric, Gaelic and English coexisted.]
|•||An addition to the manuscript states that Vortigern built a place called Guasmoric near Lugubalia [Carlisle], a city called Palmecastre [Old Carlisle, Wigton] in English.|
|•||Ida, son of Eoppa, was the first king of Bernech [Bernicia] and Cair Affrauc [sic. York].||50|
|•||Before his consecration as bishop, St Patrick was known as Mauun.*||51|
|[* this may be the same as the divine name Mogons or a derivative of Br. *magu- ‘servant’ (C. maw ‘boy’, W. meudwy ‘hermit’)]|
|•||Ethelfrid [Æþelfriþ] of Bernicia was known as Aedlfred Flesaur [from L. flexārius ‘bender, winder’].||57|
|•||Egfrid [Ecgfriþ] of Bernicia fought against his cousin Brudei, king of the Picts, and fell. The Saxons never overcame the Picts againand the battle is called Gueithlin Garan.1 Ecgfrith was known as Ailguin.2||57, 61|
|[1. W. Gwaith Llyn Garan ‘Battle of the Lake of Cranes’, generally known by the English name of Nechtanesmere. 2. W. ael gwyn ‘white brow’, aelwyn ‘fair-browed’]|
|•||Oswy of Bernicia had two wives: Riemmelth, daughter of Royth, son of Rum;* and Eanfled, daughter of Edwin, son of Alla.|
|[* Rhieinfellt, daugter of Rhwyth, son of Rhun]|
|•||Soemil the Saxon was the first to separate Deur [Deira] from Berneich [Bernicia].||61|
|•||Edwin of Deira and two of his sons fell at the battle of Meicen,1 where they fought against Catguollaunus, king of the Guendota.2||61|
|[1. Hatfield Chase, Yorkshire; the name may be W. mign ‘marsh, bog’. 2. Cadwallon, king of the men of Gwynedd].|
|•||Eata, great-grandson of Ida, was known as Glinmaur [W. glin mawr ‘great knee’].||61|
|•||Ida reigned twelve years and united [or built] Dynguayth Guarth-Berneich.*|
|[* also written Dinguerin and Gurdbernech or Dinguayrh Guarth Berneich. The place referred to is Bamburgh, the capital of Bernicia, confirmed later by the line “the town of Dynguaroy, which is … called Bebbanburg”. The first of these names occurs in Irish sources as Rātho Guali and Dún nGuaire and the British name clearly contains W. din ‘fort’ with some unknown second element. The rest may be W. garth Bryneich ‘the fort (enclosure) of Bernicia’].|
|•||“Then Dutigirn* at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles.”||62|
|[* Dutigirn is probably an error for Outigirn (W. Eudeyrn)]|
|•||“At that time, Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin, and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.”||62|
|[The names are W. Talhaearn Tad Awen ‘T., father of inspiration’, Aneirin, Taliesin, Blwchbardd and Cian Gwenith Gwawd ‘C., Wheat of Song’. Of these five, the work of Aneirin and Taliesin has partly survived, both of whom were active in the Old North. It has been suggested that Bluchbard may be a corruption of Llywarch Hen, another bard with connections to the north.]|
|•||“Cunedda, with his twelve sons, had come from the left-hand part [of Britain], i.e. from the country which is called Manau Guotodin…”||62|
|[The area, W. Manaw Gododdin, was situated to the north of the Firth of Forth. The Gaelic names Slamanan and Clackmanan contain the same element.]|
|•||“Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings: Urien, and Ryderthen, and Guallauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.”||63|
|[The four kings are W. Urien, Rhydderch, Gwallawg and Morgan Bwlch. The island of Metcaut is Lindisfarne; its name may be from L. medicātūs, meaning ‘island of healing’.]|
|•||“Edwin, son of Alla, reigned seventeen years, seized on Elmete,* and expelled Cerdic, its king.”||63|
|[* The kingdom of Elmet (W. Elfed) was located in West Yorkshire. Its name remains in Barwick-in-Elmet, a village near Leeds.]|
|•||“The following Easter Edwin himself received baptism, and twelve thousand of his subjects with him. If any one wishes to know who baptized them, it was Rum Map Urbgen:* he was engaged forty days in baptizing all classes of the Saxons, and by his preaching many believed on Christ.”||63|
|[* Rhun ab Urien, the king of Rheged. Bede says that Paulinus baptised Edwin, but since both sources have a clear interest in favouring either the British or the Roman church, it is impossible to say which is the more reliable.]|
|•||“Oswald son of Ethelfrid, reigned nine years; the same is Oswald Llauiguin1; he slew Catgublaun, king of Guenedot2, in the battle of Catscaul3…”|
|[1. W. Llaw Wyn ‘white hand’ or ‘blessed hand’. 2. Cadwallon king of the men of Gwynedd. 3. called Deniseburn by Bede; Catscaul may be W. cad ysgol ‘battle of the ladder’ (perhaps in reference to a geographical feature), or cad ysgawl ‘battle of the champion’]|
|•||“… the kings of the Britons, who went out with Penda on the expedition as far as the city of Judeu,1 were slain. Then Oswy restored all the wealth, which was with him in the city, to Penda; who distributed it among the kings of the Britons, that is Atbert Judeu.”2||64, 65|
|[1. the city of Stirling, probably from a derivative of W. udd ‘lord’. 2. the phrase Atbert Judeu means ‘restoration of Stirling’ from W. edfryd].|
The Historia is one of the earliest mentions of Arthur and connects him with several places in the north.
|1.||“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.”||50|
|2.||Arthur fought in twelve battles:|| ||50|
|1. At the mouth of the river Gleni.||1. or Glein, perhaps the confluence of the Rivers Glen and Till in Northumberland, not far from Yeavering Bell. There is also a River Glen in Lincolnshire (see below).|
|2-5. On the river Duglas which is in the region called Linnuis||2. the region is probably part of Lincolnshire. The British word *Lindēses meaning ‘people of Lincoln’ would yield *Llynnwys in Welsh. The word occurs in the English name Lindsey (‘island of the *Lindēses‘, originally an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in north-east Lincolnshire), and in Lindisfarne, which means something like ‘the people who are connected to the *Lindēses‘. I know of no Lincolnshire rivers which might derive their name from Duglas, but the name need not have surivived. There are numerous cognate river names in England, Wales and Scotland, so it must have been even more common before the arrival of English.|
|6. On the river Bassas||6. or Lusas. Unknown. Connection with Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth is very unlikely.|
|7. In the wood Celidon which the Britons call Cacoit Celidon||7. the Caledonian Forest, W. Coed Celyddon.|
|8. Near Guinnion castle||8. or Gurnion. Binchester fort in County Durham, which was called Vinovia by the Romans, has been suggested but the phonetics are not very convincing.|
|9. The city of Legion [or Leogis], which the British call Cair Lion||9. Caerllion, literally ‘fort of the legion’, is the Welsh name for Caerleon and the old name for Chester.|
|10. On the banks of the river Trat Treuroit||10. unknown, but the Solway Firth has been suggested. The name occurs as MW. trywruid in the Black Book of Carmarthen. The second word may be a byname containing W. -rwydd originally meaning ‘course’ (c.f. W. rhwydd ‘easy’, G. rèidh ‘plain, smooth’).|
|11. The mountain Breguoin, which we call Cat Bregion||11. This has been read as Breuion and connected with Roman Bremenium (High Rochester, Northumberland). Cat Bregion looks like W. cad breon ‘battle of hills’.|
|12. Mount Badon||12. unknown.|
The Tale of the Red and White Dragons
Though largely unconnected with the Old North, the story of the Red and White Dragons explains the use of y Ddraig Goch as a symbol of Wales. It also introduces Ambrosius or Emrys, who was later melded with the northern Lailoken to form the famous character of Merlin. The story from Nennius is paraphrased below:
After fleeing to Gwynedd, King Vortigern attempted to build a new city within the mountains of Snowdonia but was thwarted when the building materials kept vanishing overnight. His advisors told him that only the sacrificial blood of a child with no father could prepare the ground for his city, so Vortigern went in search of his sacrifice.
A boy was found in the field of Ælecti in Glywysing (south Wales) and was taken to the king. On discovering his intended fate, the boy questioned Vortigern’s advisors, asking “By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were previously sprinkled with my blood?”. The men were unable to answer him. The boy then told them to dig beneath the pavement where they stood. They did this and discovered a hidden pool.
“What do you see in the pool?” asked the boy. The men were silent. “There are two vases… What is in the vases?” Still silence from the men. “There is a tent. Look and you will see it’s true”. Vortigern commanded his men to take out the vases and found inside a folded tent. “What is in the tent?” asked the boy, with no reply from the men. “There are two serpents: one white, one red. Unfold the tent.” The men obeyed and discovered two sleeping serpents. “Watch what they are doing,” said the boy.
The serpents began to struggle with each other. Three times, the white one got the upper hand but the red serpent eventually recovered his strength and drove his adversary from the tent, through the pool and into the darkness of the water.
“What is the meaning of this omen?” the boy demanded of the wisemen, but they could not answer. Turning to the king, the boy explained the sign: “The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom. The two serpents are dragons: the red serpent is your dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain. At length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race back across the sea from where they came”.
“You will leave this place, where you are not permitted to build your city,” the boy continued. “I, whom fate has given this place, will remain”.
“What is your name?” asked Vortigern.”I am called Ambros,” said the boy, “in British Embresguletic [W. Emrys Gwledig]. My father was a Roman Consul”.
Vortigern then gave Ambros the city and all the western provinces of Britain, and left with his wisemen to the district of Gueneri where he built his city of Cair Guorthegirn. [The identification of the district is unknown but Cair Guorthegirn is later said to be in Dyfed].