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Historia Britonum

The Historia Britonum, or The History of the Britons, is a historical work that was first written sometime shortly after AD 820, and exists in several recensions of varying difference. It purports to relate the history of British inhabitants from earliest times, and this text has been used to write a history of both England and Wales, for want of more reliable sources.

The text itself is a collection of excerpts, chronological calculations, glosses, and summaries based on earlier records -- many of which no longer exist. As a result, the reliability of this work has been questioned both in part and in whole. The archeologist Leslie Alcock observed that in one recension of this manuscript the author called his work a heap of all he could find, and suggested that if we were to extend this metaphor, this text is "like a cairn of stones, uneven and ill-fitting . . . as an example of the historian's art it is atrocious. But it has the virtue of its defects. We can see the individual stones of the cairn, and in some cases we can trace the parent rock form which they came, and establish its age and soundness."

Another view is offered by Professor David N. Dumville, who has done a great deal of research into the transmission of this text and the relationship of its recensions. Professor Dumville believes that this text has been revised, supplemented, and rewritten many times and in many ways between the date of its apparent origin, and the date of its surviving manuscripts. The intent of its author was to produce a synchronizing chronicle after the manner of Irish historians in his own time. And since this manuscript offered the only history of Wales complementary to Bede's own Ecclesiastical History of the English People, it was reproduced and revised to meet this demand.

Traditionally, the Historia Britonum is ascribed to be the work of Nennius, a Welsh monk of the ninth century. However, examination of the numerous recensions show that Gildas was also claimed as its author (since Gildas was the only historical author its scribes knew of), while others (such as the British Library manuscript Harleian 3859) do not name an author. Professor Dumville's researches have shown that the ascription of this work to Nennius originated in the tenth century in one branch of the manuscript transmission, created by a scribe seeking to root this work in the intellectual traditions of that time.

The Historia Britonum has also drawn attention because of its role in influencing the legends and myths surrounding King Arthur. This history is the source of several stories some of which were repeated and amplified by later authors:

1) The story of Vortigern, who allowed the Saxons to settle in the island of Britain in return for the hand of Hengest's daughter.

Vortigern then reigned in Britain. In his time, the natives had cause of dread, not only from the inroads of the Scots and Picts, but also from the Romans, and their apprehensions of Ambrosius.

In the meantime, three vessels, exiled from Germany, arrived in Britain. They were commanded by Horsa and Hengist, brothers, and sons of Wihtgils. Wihtgils was the son of Witta; Witta of Wecta; Wecta of Woden; Woden of Frithowald; Frithowald of Frithuwulf; Frithuwulf of Finn; Finn of Godwulf; Godwulf of Geat, who, as they say, was the son of a god, not of the omnipotent God and our Lord Jesus Christ (who before the beginning of the world, was with the Father and the Holy Spirit, co-eternal and of the same substance, and who, in compassion to human nature, disdained not to assume the form of a servant), but the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped according to the custom of the heathen.

Vortigern received them as friends, and delivered up to them the island which is in their language called Thanet, and by the Britons, Ruym. Gratianus AEquantius at that time reigned in Rome. The Saxons were received by Vortigern four hundred and forty-seven years after the passion of Christ, and, according to the tradition of our ancestors, from the period of their first arrival in Britain, to the first year of the reign of King Edmund, five hundred and forty-two years; and to that in which we now write, which is the fifth of his reign, five hundred and forty-seven years.
(Chapter 31)

After the Saxons had continued some time in the island of Thanet, Vortigern promised to supply them with clothing and provision, on condition they would engage to fight against the enemies of his country. But the barbarians having greatly increased in number, the Britons became incapable of fulfilling their engagement; and when the Saxons, according to the promise they had received, claimed a supply of provisions and clothing, the Britons replied, "Your number is increased; your assistance is now unnecessary; you may, therefore, return home, for we can no longer support you;" and hereupon they began to devise means of breaking the peace between them.

But Hengist, in whom united craft and cunning, perceiving he had to act with an ignorant king, and a fluctuating people, incapable of opposing much resistance, replied to Vortigern, "We are, indeed, few in number; but, if you will give us leave, we will send to our country for an additional number of forces, with whom we will fight for you and your subjects." Vortigern assenting to this proposal, messengers were despatched to Scythia, where selecting a number of warlike troops, they returned with sixteen vessels, bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist. And now the Saxon chief prepared an entertainment, to which he invited the king, his officers, and Ceretic, his interpreter, having previously enjoined his daughter to serve them so profusely with wine and ale, that they might soon become intoxicated. This plan succeeded; and Vortigern, at the instigation of the devil, and enamoured with the beauty of the damsel, demanded her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her whatever he should ask. Then Hengist, who had already consulted with the elders who attended him of the Oghgul race, demanded for his daughter the province, called in English Centland, in British, Ceint. This cession was made without the knowledge of the king, Guoyrancgonus who then reigned in Kent, and who experienced no inconsiderable share of grief, from seeing his kingdom thus clandestinely, fraudulently, and imprudently resigned to foreigners. Thus the maid was delivered up to the king, who slept with her, and loved her exceedingly.

Hengist, after this, said to Vortigern, "I will be to you both a father and an adviser; despise not my counsels, and you shall have no reason to fear being conquered by any man or any nation whatever; for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust: if you approve, I will send for my son and his brother, both valiant men who at my invitation will fight against the Scots, and you can give them the countries in the north, near the wall called "Gual." The incautious sovereign having assented to this, Octa and Ebusa arrived with forty ships. In these they sailed round the country of the Picts, laid waste the Orkneys, and took possession of many regions, even to the Pictish confines.
(Chapters 36-8)

2) Vortigern attempted to build a stronghold in Snowdon, called Dinas Emrys, but its construction was unsuccessful. in attempting to resolve this problem, he encounters Aurelius Ambrosianus, whom Geoffrey of Monmouth in his retelling of this story identifies with Merlin.

But soon after calling together his twelve wise men, to consult what was to be done, they said to him, "Retire to the remote boundaries of your kingdom; there build and fortify a city to defend yourself, for the people you have received are treacherous; they are seeking to subdue you by stratagem, and, even during your life, to seize upon all the countries subject to your power, how much more will they attempt, after your death!" The king, pleased with this advice, departed with his wise men, and travelled through many parts of his territories, in search of a place convenient for the purpose of building a citadel. Having travelled far and wide without success, they came at last to a province called Guenet; and having surveyed the mountains of Hereri, they discovered, on the summit of one of them, a place fit for the construction of a citadel. Upon this, the wise men said to the king, "Build here a city; for, in this place, it will ever be secure against the barbarians." Then the king sent for artificers, carpenters, stone-masons, and collected all the materials requisite to building; but the whole of these disappeared in one night, so that nothing remained of what had been provided for the constructing of the citadel. Materials were, therefore, from all parts, procured a second and third time, and again vanished as before, leaving and rendering every effort ineffectual. Vortigern inquired of his wise men the cause of this opposition to his undertaking, and of so much useless expense of labour? They replied, "You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle with his blood the ground on which the citadel is to be built, or you will never accomplish your purpose."

In consequence of this reply, the king sent messengers throughout Britain, in search of a child born without a father. After having inquired in all the provinces, they came to Campus Allecti, in the district of Glevesing, where a party of boys were playing at ball. And two of them quarrelling, one said to the other, "Boy without a father, no good will ever happen to you." Upon this, the messengers diligently inquired of the mother and the other boys, whether he had had a father? Which his mother denied, saying, "In what manner he was conceived I know not, for I have never had intercourse with any man;" and then she solemnly affirmed that he had no mortal father. The boy was, therefore, led away, and conducted before Vortigern the king.

A meeting took place the next day for the purpose of putting him to death. Then the boy said to the king, "Why have your servants brought me hither?" "That you may be put to death," replied the king, "and that the ground on which my citadel is to stand, may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be unable to build it." "Who," said the boy, "instructed you to do this?" "My wise men," answered the king. "Order them hither," returned the boy; this being complied with, he thus questioned them: "By what means was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were previously sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me to you;" then turning to the king, he said, "I will soon unfold to you every thing; but I desire to question your wise men, and wish them to disclose to you what is hidden under this pavement." They acknowledged their ignorance, and he said "There is a pool; come and dig." They did so, and found the pool. "Now," continued he, "tell me what is in it." But the wise men were ashamed, and made no reply. Said the boy, "I can discover it to you: there are two vases in the pool." They came, and found it so; the boy continuing his questions, "What is in the vases?" And they were silent. "There is a tent in them," said the boy; "separate them, and you shall find it so;" this being done by the king's command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply, "There are," said he, "two vermes, one white and the other red; unfold the tent;" they obeyed, and two sleeping vermes were discovered; "consider attentively," said the boy, "what they are doing." The vermes began to struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength, expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king, "I will now unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the tent that of your kingdom: the two vermes are two dragons; the red vermes is your dragon, but the white vermes is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; nevertheless depart you from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek other provinces, where you may build a fortress." "What is your name?" asked the king; "I am called Ambrosius," returned the boy; which is in British Embresguletic. And in answer to the king's question, "What is your origin?" he replied, "A Roman consul was my father." Then the king assigned him that city, with all the western provinces of Britain; and departing with his wise men to the left-hand side, he arrived in the region named Gueneri, where he built a city which, was named after him, Cair Guorthegirn.
(The latin word vermes is usually translated "dragons", but A.W. Wade-Evans makes the argument in his translation that it should be translated "badgers".)
(Chapters 40-42)

3) What appears to be a summary of a poem listing 12 battles of Arthur, some of which clearly are not properly identified with him.

Then it was, that 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 Glein. The second, third, fourth, and fifth, were on another river, by the Britons called Dubglas, in the region Linnuis. The sixth, on the river Bassas. The seventh in the wood Celidon, which the Britons call Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth was near Castle Gurnion, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, 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 Leon. 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.
(Chapter 56)

4) A list of marvels, several of which are associated with Arthur.

There is another marvel in the region which is called Buelt. There is a mound of stones there and one stone placed above the pile with the pawprint of a dog in it. When Cabal, who was the dog of Arthur the soldier, was hunting the boar Troynt, he impressed his print in the stone, and afterwards Arthur assembled a stone mound under the stone with the print of his dog, and it is called the Carn Cabal. And men come and remove the stone in their hands for the length of a day and a night; and on the next day it is found on top of its mound.

There is another wonder in the region which is called Ercing. A tomb is located there next to a spring which is called Licat Amr; and the name of the man who is buried in the tomb was called thus: Amr. He was the son of Arthur the soldier, and Arthur himself killed and buried him in that very place. And men come to measure the grave and find it sometimes six feet in length, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever length you might measure it at one time, a second time you will not find it to have the same length--and I myself have put this to the test.
(Chapter 73)

The sections that provide these stories are present in the Harleian manuscript, but not in all of the existing recensions.

There are also chapters relating events about St Germanus that claim to be excerpts from a (now lost) biography about this saint, a unique collection of traditions about St Patrick, as well as a section describing events in the North of England in the sixth and seventh centuries which begins with a paragraph about the beginnings of Welsh literature:

At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen 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.
(Chapter 62)

There are a number of works that are frequently associated with the Historia Britonum, in part because some of them first appear with the text preserved in the Harleian manuscript, and partly because whenever the Historia Britonum is studied, these sources eventually are mentioned.

1) The Annales Cambriae. This is a chronicle consisting of a series of unnumbered years, from AD 445 to 977, some of which have events added. Two notable events are next to AD 516, which describes The Battle of Badon, and 537, which describes the Battle of Camlann, "in which Arthur and Mordred fell." A version of this was used as a starting point for later Welsh Chronicles.

2) Welsh Genealogies. One of many collections of Welsh genealogies, this documents the lineage of Hywel Dda, king of Gwynedd and several of his contemporaries. The Pillar of Eliseg is frequently discussed in connection with these genalogies.

3) Anglo-Saxon Genealogies. This is a collection of the genealogies of five pre-Viking kingdoms: Bernicia, Deira, Kent, East Anglia, and Mercia.

The quotations presented here from the Historia Brittonum are based on the translation of J. A. Giles, from his book Six Old English Chronicles, 1848. The complete text is available at