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The Arthurian Tradition: Historia Brittonum

In this instalment of the Arthurian Tradition I look at the Historia Brittonum and consider how a Trojan migrant, a fatherless boy, an unbuildable tower and twelve pivotal battles merge together in the next stage of Arthuriana in the British Isles.

The Historia Brittonum

The Historia is a frenetic journey through time and place, written with the professed aim of immortalising the history of the Britons. The author is very concerned to place British history within a wider European and world context – names from classical mythology and various Biblical genealogies are thrown at the reader at an astounding pace, explaining the origins of European tribes such as the Goths and Vandals, before eventually providing ancestry for Britain and her past leaders in Brutus, a migrant warrior from Troy.

The Historia Brittonum is thought to originate sometime during the ninth century but the oldest surviving copy is in BL MS Harley 3859 (also known as Epitome rei militaris), which dates from the first half of the twelfth century. Scholars are unsure how much of the text handed down to us in this manuscript is true to the ninth-century original, and how much was changed by the author of this recension (previously thought to be Nennius, now referred to on the whole as Pseudo-Nennius due to uncertainty surrounding this attribution), who may have been influenced by eleventh and twelfth-century Welsh Arthurian tradition. Conversely, this text may have influenced other contemporary twelfth-century writers of Arthuriana – Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia shares several similar features and plot devices with our Historia. Medieval chicken and egg…

Nennius-Ages of world

Above: The large letter ‘B’ halfway down the page begins a section on the origins of the British and Irish. It begins, ‘The island of Britain is so called from one Brutus, a Roman consul.’ From the British Library digitised manuscripts collection.

The Historia Brittonum is a beautiful read, brimming with those literary conventions that medievalists know and (hopefully!) love so well. The author is apologetic to the point of neurosis about having written the text: ‘like a barbarian have I murdered and defiled the language of others’ –  but he ultimately feels that the history of his nation would be better written by him than being forgotten completely:  ‘I was indignant, that the name of my own people, formerly famous and distinguished, should sink into oblivion, and like smoke be dissipated…I had rather myself be the historian of the Britons than nobody.’ Like Gildas, Pseudo-Nennius is passionate about his country, his people, and his heritage. In a Britain which had seen so much change during the lifetime of both writers, this element of trying to hold onto something permanent, a heritage that can’t be taken away, is perhaps understandable.

Britain and Rome

In terms of its Arthurian legacy, parts of the Historia will undoubtedly sound familiar to anyone who knows their later Arthurian texts. For instance, the troubles between Britain and Rome:

‘The Romans, having obtained the dominion of the world, sent legates or deputies to the Britons to demand of them hostages and tribute, which they received from all other countries and islands, but…the Britons despised the authority of the Romans, equally refusing to pay them tribute, or to receive their kings; nor durst the Romans any longer attempt the government of a country, the natives of which massacred their deputies.’

Documented by both Pseudo-Nennius and Gildas, this state of events is included with slight alteration in later texts such as the Alliterative Morte Arthure and Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, where Arthur himself is depicted as the king who refuses to pay the Roman tribute.

Vortigern and Ambrosius

Another facet of the Historia that finds its way into subsequent Arthuriana is Vortigern – a British king who can also be found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. Our author says of Vortigern: ‘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.’

So peril surrounds Vortigern in the form of marauding Scots and Picts… but wait – there’s that Ambrosius again! Those who read my post The Arthurian Tradition: Gildas will remember Ambrosius as the Romano-Briton who is said to have led the British to victory, briefly stemming the tide of invaders. Surely he and Vortigern should both be on the same side, battling against the invaders… so what would Vortigern have to fear from him? We get a clue in the following description of them both:

‘Vortigern is said to have been the sovereign of the Dimetae, and Ambrosius son to the king of the Damnonii. The latter was half a Roman by descent, and naturally supported by Roman interest: the former was entirely a Briton, and as naturally seconded by the original Britons.’

Despite both fighting the British cause, there are still nuances of ‘Britishness’ playing out here, with Vortigern the ‘pure’ Briton versus the half-Roman, half-Briton Ambrosius – a cultural disparity that seems to cause friction.

Pseudo-Nennius’ Vortigern was a wily and ambitious man by the sounds of things, cosying up to the Saxons and using them as extra muscle to defeat Britain’s plentiful invaders. He put them on the isle of Thanet in Kent and ‘promised to supply them with clothing and provision, on condition they would engage to fight against the enemies of the country.’ I know they say that hindsight is 20/20, but really, did Vortigern not see the potential problems that might arise when hiring disinterested mercenaries who would be fully exposed to the martial weakness of Britain, and who might just be tempted to take advantage of it for themselves? Sure enough, the Saxons take over the show. We are told that the Britons tried to send the Saxons packing once they realised what was happening, but it was all too late.

Vortigern’s tower

The Historia also details the incident of Vortigern’s tower. In this version, Vortigern tries to build a citadel on top of a mountain as a fortress secure from the ‘barbarians’. Unlike later versions in which the tower is built successfully but falls down each night, here the materials and equipment needed to build the tower disappear every evening. This happens repeatedly. Vortigern eventually consults his wise men who tell him: ‘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.’

And who was this child without a father? None other than Merlin himself! The Arthurian legend is all coming together, non?

As an interesting aside, the Project Gutenberg ebook of this text (translated by J.A. Giles) that I quote from throughout this post gives the location of Vortigern’s tower as: ‘Heremi, Heriri or Eryri, signifying eagle rocks, the mountains of Snowdon, in Caernarvonshire. The spot alluded to is supposed to be Dinas Emrys, or the fortress of Ambrosius.’ Although I have no idea whether this etymology is genuine, it adds an interesting twist to considerations of Ambrosius. We’ve already heard how Ambrosius and Arthur may have been conflated over time, but it seems a similar process has occurred with regard to Merlin (Emrys) and Ambrosius. Just to add another layer of mystery and intrigue, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Prophetiae Merlini depicts Ambrosius and Merlin as separate people, where Merlin is said to create Stonehenge as Ambrosius’ tomb. Are Merlin, Arthur and Ambrosius three separate people, or a trinity grounded in one or more potentially historical characters?

Ambrosius and Arthur

Pseudo-Nennius tells us of Ambrosius that ‘the Blessed man was unanimously chosen commander against the Saxons. And then, not by the clang of trumpets, but by praying, singing hallelujah, and by the cries of the army to God, the enemies were routed, and driven even to the sea.’ He also refers to Ambrosius as ‘the great king among the kings of Britain.’ We can certainly see why Nennius, a monk, would paint a rosier portrait of the Christian Ambrosius than that of the pagan Vortigern.

An Arthur is also mentioned  – suggesting that this author regards Arthur and Ambrosius as separate entities. Without any introduction or preamble, the author immediately launches into an account of how Arthur led the Britons to victory against the Saxons: ‘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.’ Arthur and Ambrosius share this quality of martial leadership and are both seen to lead the Britons against the Saxons, but unlike Ambrosius, who Gildas tells us is of noble birth, Arthur is perhaps a more ‘salt of the earth’, ‘man of the people’ sort of character: ‘there were many more noble than himself.’ This adds an interesting nuance to the ‘king of kings’ image of Arthur in later medieval literature – perhaps he began from more humble origins than we have been led to believe, and perhaps his fostering by Sir Ector in later texts is a nod to these origins. Yet the fact that Arthur was twelve times elected commander by his people is certainly to his credit and suggests that whatever qualities he had as a leader were more greatly prized than nobility.

Arthur’s twelve battles

Nennius-Battle of Badon

There is then a brief account of the twelve great battles fought and won by Arthur:

‘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, 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.’

In Y Gododdin Arthur is hinted at as being the superlative warrior. Continuing this theme, the Historia explicitly uses the words dux bellorum (battle leader) and tells us that 940 men were killed ‘by his hand alone.’ An early medieval superhero perhaps? The author of the Historia clearly has a soft-spot for Arthur, this Christian warrior king who beat back the Saxons time and time again. Some of these battles and place names become staples of subsequent Arthurian literature, and most people will particularly recognise Mount Badon, which is thought to have taken place sometime between 490 and 517 AD. However the closest source we have to this time, Gildas, does not mention Arthur in relation to this battle.

King Urien

King Urien, a recognisable character from medieval and modern Arthurian literature, is also mentioned in the Historia:

‘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…’

A sixth-century king of the Hen Ogledd (Old North), Urien Rheged becomes Urien of Gore in later Arthurian literature, where he marries Morgan le Fay. Urien’s real-life son Owain is also included as his and Morgan’s son in subsequent texts, becoming Ywain/Yvain in some texts. Ostensibly historical characters becoming integrated with myth is a familiar paradigm in Arthurian literature, with Arthur, Merlin and Urien undergoing this process, to name but a few.

A familiar picture

So a familiar picture emerges from the Historia and the previous two instalments of The Arthurian Tradition of a troubled Britain in which the myths of Arthur found their roots. Abandoned by Rome, fighting off a seemingly endless swathe of invaders in what must have seemed like a hopeless effort, discord rife within the British population itself… It’s hardly surprising that contemporary and subsequent Britons would create a hero for the age, if only to even up the odds from the realms of hindsight and shine a light back into what seem like such dark times. The fact that the myths seem to rest on a grain of truth – the Arthur of Y Gododdin or the Ambrosius Aurelianus of Gildas – must have made them even more appealing for the native Britons. The desperation and hopelessness of the age as painted by such medieval writers as Aneirin, Gildas and Pseudo-Nennius goes some way towards explaining his development into a medieval superhero of sorts. Every age has its own darkness, so the need for an Arthur (or indeed, an Ambrosius) has never really left us.

Full text of the Historia Brittonum available at:

Further note:

Where the etext of the Giles translation ends, a further part – Chapter 73 – is supplied by Alan Lupack for the Camelot Project at This extra chapter goes as follows:

‘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.’

Source: Six Old English Chronicles. ed. J. A. Giles. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848.

This is so strange and interesting that I think I’ll leave an exploration of these phenomena for a whole other blog post…


I am grateful to @Sarah_Peverley and @MedievalBrian for pointing out that Nennius is now more usually referred to as ‘Pseudo-Nennius.’

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