History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales 1843846276, 9781843846277, 9781800105195

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History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales
 1843846276, 9781843846277, 9781800105195

Table of contents :
List of Maps vii
Acknowledgements ix
List of Abbreviations xi
Introduction 1
1. Names, Territories, and Kingdoms 21
2. Language 53
3. Origin Legends I: the Britons 89
4. Origin Legends II: Legitimate and Illegitimate Migration 121
5. Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom 149
Conclusions 173
Bibliography 179
Index 197

Citation preview

Studies in Celtic History XLIV



General editors Dauvit Broun Máire Ní Mhaonaigh Huw Pryce

Studies in Celtic History aims to provide a forum for new research into all aspects of the history of Celtic-speaking peoples throughout the whole of the medieval period. The term ‘history’ is understood broadly: any study, regardless of discipline, which advances our knowledge and understanding of the history of Celtic-speaking peoples will be considered. Studies of primary sources, and of new methods of exploiting such sources, are encouraged. Founded by Professor David Dumville, the series was relaunched under new editorship in 1997. Proposals or queries may be sent directly to the editors at the addresses given below; all submissions will receive prompt and informed consideration before being sent to expert readers. Professor Dauvit Broun, Department of History (Scottish), University of Glasgow, 9 University Gardens, Glasgow G12 8QH Professor Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, St John’s College, Cambridge CB2 1TP Professor Huw Pryce, School of History, Law and Social Sciences, Bangor University, Gwynedd LL57 2DG

For titles already published in this series see the end of this volume




© Rebecca Thomas 2022 All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under current legislation no part of this work may be photocopied, stored in a retrieval system, published, performed in public, adapted, broadcast, transmitted, recorded or reproduced in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the copyright owner The right of Rebecca Thomas to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 First published 2022

D. S. Brewer, Cambridge ISBN 978-1-84384-627-7 (hardback) ISBN 978-1-80010-519-5 (ePDF) D. S. Brewer is an imprint of Boydell & Brewer Ltd

PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DF, UK and of Boydell & Brewer Inc. 668 Mt Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620–2731, USA website: www.boydellandbrewer.com A catalogue record of this publication is available from the British Library The publisher has no responsibility for the continued existence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate Cover image: Historia Brittonum (Gildasian recension) in Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, folio 44v © The British Library Board, reproduced by kind permission. Cover design: 1981d.co.uk


List of Maps




List of Abbreviations


Introduction 1.

Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

1 21

2. Language




Origin Legends I: the Britons

4. Origin Legends II: Legitimate and Illegitimate Migration


5. Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom










Conflict and Flight in Armes Prydein

2. British Place- and River-Names in Asser’s Life of King Alfred


48 68


I would like to take the opportunity here to acknowledge the generous support that I have received while producing this book. This research came to fruition at Prifysgol Bangor, and I am hugely indebted to my mentor, Professor Huw Pryce, for his invaluable advice and encouragement. I would also like to thank Professor Paul Russell, Professor Thomas Charles-Edwards, and Dr Ben Guy, for fruitful discussion and feedback on earlier drafts. I have benefited from discussion of specific topics with a number of scholars, and particular thanks go to Professor Nancy Edwards, Dr Oliver Padel, Dr Charles Insley, and Dr Caroline Brett. The ideas pursued in this book first took shape during my time at the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and St John’s College, Cambridge. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr Rory Naismith, who fostered my interest in medieval studies as an undergraduate and has continued to be a constant source of support and friendship since. At Cambridge, special thanks are due to Dr Ali Bonner, Dr Fiona Edmonds, Professor Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, and Professor Simon Keynes, and I would also like to thank Dr Philip Dunshea for encouraging this research at an early stage. I have had the privilege of working with wonderful friends and colleagues, only some of whom can be listed here. I am indebted to Dr Myriah Williams, whose friendship and advice have been an enormous support during the production of this book. I would also like to thank my fellow members of the Welsh Chronicles Research Group, Dr Ben Guy, Dr Georgia Henley, and Dr Owain Wyn Jones, whose enthusiasm for discussing any matter relating to medieval Wales knows no bounds. My research at Cambridge was enriched by the friendship of Dr Ben Allport, Dr Francesco Marzella, and Dr Marie-Luise Theuerkauf. At Bangor, it has been a privilege to work in the company of wonderful and dedicated colleagues, and I would like to acknowledge especially Dr Mari Wiliam, Dr Sadie Jarrett and my fellow Welsh medievalists Professor Nancy Edwards, Dr Owain Wyn Jones, Professor Huw Pryce, and Dr Euryn Rhys Roberts. I am grateful to the British Academy for generously funding my research at Bangor, and to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, St John’s College, and the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic for their support during my time at Cambridge. I would like to thank Boydell & Brewer, especially Caroline Palmer and Dr Elizabeth McDonald, for their support, and the anonymous reviewers and series editors for their helpful feedback. Yn olaf, hoffwn ddiolch i’m rhieni a’m brodyr am eu cefnogaeth. Ac i David, am bopeth.



AC Annales Cambriae (ed. and transl. Dumville) APV Armes Prydein Vawr (ed. I. Williams)

ASC A Anglo-Saxon Chronicle A (ed. Bately; transl. Whitelock et al.)

ASC B Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B (ed. Taylor; transl. Whitelock et al.)

ASC C Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C (ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe; transl. Whitelock et al.)

ASC D Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D (ed. Cubbin; transl. Whitelock et al.)

ASC E Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E (ed. Irvine; transl. Whitelock et al.)

Bede, HE Bede, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors)

Brev. The Breviate chronicle (ed. Gough-Cooper, ‘Annales Cambriae, the B-text’)

ByT (BS) Brenhinedd y Saesson (ed. and transl. T. Jones)

ByT (P20) Brut y Tywysogyon, Peniarth 20 version (ed. and transl. T. Jones)

ByT (RB) Brut y Tywysogyon, Red Book of Hergest version (ed. and transl. T. Jones)

DGB Geoffrey of Monmouth, De gestis Britonum (ed. and transl. Reeve and Wright) DMLBS Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (ed. Latham et al.) DTR Bede, De temporum ratione (ed. C. W. Jones, Bedae Venerabilis; transl. Wallis, Bede: the Reckoning of Time)

Gildas, DEB Gildas, De excidio Britanniae (ed. and transl. Winterbottom)

GPC Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (ed. R. J. Thomas et al.)

HAP Historiarum adversum paganos libri VII (ed. Zangemesiter, Pauli Orosii; transl. Fear, Orosius)

HB (Harl.) Historia Brittonum in Harley 3859 (ed. Faral, III) xi


HB (Vat.) Historia Brittonum, Vatican recension (ed. Dumville, The Historia Brittonum 3)

HC The Harleian Chronicle (ed. Phillimore, ‘The Annales Cambriae and the Old-Welsh Genealogies from Harleian MS. 3859’) HG The Harleian genealogies (ed. Phillimore, ‘The Annales Cambriae and the Old-Welsh Genealogies from Harleian MS. 3859’) HR Paul the Deacon, Historia Romana (ed. Crivellucci, Pauli Diaconi Historia romana)

LHF Liber historiae Francorum (ed. Krusch, ‘Liber Historiae Francorum’)

MGH, Auct. ant. Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Auctores antiquissimi

MGH, SS rer. Germ Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum MGH, SS rer. Merov Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores Rerum Merovingicarum S (with document Sawyer, Anglo-Saxon Charters number)



Primus homo venit ad Europam de genere Jafeth Alanus cum tribus filiis suis, quorum nomina sunt Hessitio, Armenon, Negue. Hessitio autem habuit filios quattuor: hi sunt Francus, Romanus, Britto, Albanus. Armenon autem habuit quinque filios: Gothus, Valagothus, Gebidus, Burgondus, Langobardus. Neugo autem habuit tres filios: Wandalus, Saxo, Boguarus. Ab Hisitione autem ortae sunt quattuor gentes: Franci, Latini, Albani et Britti. Ab Armenone autem quinque: Gothi, Walagothi, Gebidi, Burgondi, Langobardi. A Neguio vero quattuor: Boguarii, Vandali, Saxones et Taringi. Istae autem gentes subdivisae sunt per totam Europam.1 The first man who came to Europe was Alanus from the tribe of Japheth, with his three sons, whose names are Hessitio, Armeno, Negue. And Hessitio had four sons: they are Francus, Romanus, Britto, Albanus. Armeno, moreover, had five sons: Gothus, Valagothus, Gebidus, Burgandus, Langobardus. Neugo, on the other hand, had three sons: Vandalus, Saxo, Bouarus. Now from Hissitio there were sprung four peoples: the Franks, the Latins, the Albans and the Britons. From Armeno there were sprung five: the Goths, the Valagoths, the Gepids, the Burgundians, the Lombards. From Negue there were four: the Boguarii, the Vandals, the Saxons, and the Thuringians. These peoples were divided across the whole of Europe.

Medieval writers conceived of the world as divided into peoples descending from particular progenitors. The Bible traced the re-population of the earth after the Flood to gentes springing from the sons of Noah (Genesis 10), a framework adopted and adapted by early medieval writers such as Isidore of Seville.2 Influential also in the development of the structuring of history around peoples was the Chronicle of Jerome, a late-fourth-century Latin translation and continuation of the Chronicle of Eusebius, surviving manuscripts of which dedicated different columns to the history of different peoples, including the Assyrians, Hebrews, and Latins. This prompted efforts by early medieval writers to place the history of their own peoples in a universal context.3 These written sources are a window through which we can see the construction of ethnic identities in the middle ages. Material culture undoubtedly played a part in this process, although it is difficult – and sometimes problematic – to map the surviving evidence on to medieval identities.4 Of course, there are areas of overlap between these two categories of evidence: inscribed stones, for example, could carry statements of identity.5 The key point is that we need to look to the words HB (Harl.), §17 (ed. Faral, III. 15; all translations my own unless otherwise stated). Isidore, Etymologiae, IX.ii.1–37 (ed. Lindsay, I; transl. Barney et al., 192–3). 3 For further discussion, see Reimitz, History, 217–27; Clarke, ‘Leabhar Gabhála’, 442. 4 For a recent discussion of what material culture can reveal of identity construction in the context of early medieval Wales, see Edwards, ‘Early Medieval Wales’. See also the note of caution in Wickham, Early Medieval Italy, 68. 5 Edwards, ‘Early Medieval Wales’, 67, 71–4, 76–8, 82. 1 2


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

of medieval writers for explicit statements about the existence of different gentes, whatever the form in which those words survive. The ninth-century Cambro-Latin text Historia Brittonum provides one such statement. The framework developed by writers such as Isidore and Jerome is here adopted and adapted to present the history of the Britons as a distinct gens, while also placing that history in a broader context. In the extract quoted at the beginning of this introduction, the author of Historia Brittonum uses a continental text called the ‘Table of Nations’ to provide an explanation of the origins of the peoples of Europe. The ‘Table of Nations’ depicts a Europe divided into clearly defined gentes, all of whom trace their origins back to the three sons of Alanus. The combined influence of Genesis 10 and Isidore can be seen here, as Alanus is said to be of the tribe of Japheth son of Noah. Historia Brittonum extends the framework to include an additional generation, namely the grandsons of Alanus. Every gens is consequently furnished with an eponymous ancestor: the Britons are descended from Britto, the Franks from Francus, and so on. There is commentary here too on the relationships between these gentes. All the peoples of Europe are ultimately descended from Alanus, but those claiming the same son as an ancestor are the most closely related. The identification of the Britons as descendants of Hissitio, alongside the Franks, the Romans, and the Albans, is likely significant.6 The gentes presented by Historia Brittonum here appear simple, unchanging, and self-explanatory. They are different peoples in so far as they descend from different (albeit related) ancestors. Yet if we widen our gaze even slightly, we realise the situation in the early medieval world is far, far more complex. Ethnic groups are not objective, static entities, naturally formed through the inheritance of biological traits. Rather, an ethnic group is constructed based on perceived differences between its members and outsiders.7 These groups are not permanent, and undergo constant re-creation, with the characteristics highlighted as important in their definition subject to change. As Walter Pohl explains, ethnicity cannot be concretely defined according to a set of objective characteristics. Language and customs might be important to the identity of one group, but not so much to another. Which characteristics are deemed important is a choice.8 This does not mean that characteristics such as language and customs are unimportant. Rather, they are only important in as much as the ethnic community believes them to be important. Group A might speak a different language to Group B, but this is only relevant to identity construction if Group A distinguishes itself from Group B on the basis of language. There is a further key point here: the construction of identity relies not only on the perception of sameness within a group, but also the perception of distinction from others. Certain characteristics are perceived as important because they constitute a difference between an ethnic group and outsiders. In this sense, an ethnic community is defined by what, or who, they are not.9 This is the case with the example from Historia Brittonum quoted above: it is not simply the origins of the Britons that the author explains through use of the ‘Table of Nations’. Rather, the significance of the Historia Brittonum’s use of this text is discussed further in Chapter 3, 93–5. Eriksen, Ethnicity and Nationalism, 11‒18; Barth, Social Boundaries. In the context of the middle ages: Pohl, ‘Introduction: Strategies of Distinction’, 8; R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland…I’, 8‒9. For extensive discussion of defining ‘ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic identity’ in a medieval context, see Pohl, ‘Introduction – Strategies of Identification’. 8 Pohl, ‘Telling the Difference’, 20–1. 9 Ibid., 21–2; Eriksen, Ethnicity and Nationalism, 9‒10. 6 7



origins of the Britons lies in the comparison with the origins of the other peoples of Europe. Their identity is constructed through establishing their place in this wider context. The opinion of these other peoples might also be important. In other words, how a group is perceived by non-members could influence its own self-perception.10 As an example, Huw Pryce has argued that the increasing reference to the Welsh as Walenses (rather than Brit(t)ones) in the works of twelfth-century Cambro-Latin writers was influenced in part by Norman usage of the term and by the way the Welsh wished to be perceived in their relations with the wider world.11 The self-perception of a gens, their perception of others, and how that gens itself is perceived, are intimately linked in the process of identity construction. This is not to state anything particularly controversial: the qualification that identity is constructed and constantly in flux has become a regular feature in the pages of scholarship on identities, whatever the period, place, or specific identity under consideration. So much so that some have argued that such qualifications have been rendered meaningless.12 The term itself has come under fire for its vagueness and ambiguity, and its usefulness as a category of analysis has been questioned.13 However, in this context it is identity as a category of practice that is under the microscope, namely the very process of construction.14 The intention is not simply to list the qualifications concerning the malleability of identity alongside a note of caution, before proceeding to consider the end product: these qualifications are the very focus of this study. Here, then, ‘identity’ is used as a shorthand to describe ideas of sameness and distinction, with a focus on how those ideas are constructed. Walter Pohl coins the term ‘strategies of distinction’ to describe the process of constructing ethnic identities in the early medieval period through establishing perceived differences between an ethnic group and outsiders.15 The differences themselves may be objective – language, for example – but the perceived importance of these differences is subjective, fluctuating from group to group. Indeed, the identity of a single group could be constructed in varying ways by different writers. It is possible, nevertheless, to put together a catalogue of characteristics that might have been considered significant. Medieval writers themselves provide some guidance in this regard. In a letter to Pope Innocent II, Bishop Bernard of St Davids (ob. 1148) described the Welsh as different to their English neighbours in ‘natione, lingua, legibus et moribus, iudiciis et consuetudinibus’.16 Drawing on a wide-ranging sample of medieval writers, Rees Davies pinpointed ‘names, boundaries and regnal solidarities’, ‘laws and customs’, and ‘language and historical mythology’ as the ‘identifying features’ of the peoples of the Insular world in the middle ages.17 In the context of 12 13

Pohl, ‘Introduction – Strategies of Identification’, 3; Bartlett, ‘Medieval and Modern’, 40. Pryce, ‘British or Welsh?’, 792–6. For further discussion see below, 6. Brubaker and Cooper, ‘Beyond “Identity”’, 11. Ibid., 1. Philip Gleason provides an overview of the development of the term and cautions that it must be used responsibly by historians: ‘Identifying Identity’, 931. 14 The distinction between identity as a category of analysis and category of practice is drawn in Brubaker and Cooper, ‘Beyond “Identity”’, 4–5. 15 Pohl, ‘Introduction: Strategies of Distinction’, 5–7. 16 Gerald of Wales, De Invectionibus, ii.7 (ed. W. S. Davies, 142): ‘nation, language, laws and manners, judgements and customs’. 17 R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland…II’; R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland…III’; R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland…IV’; R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland…I’, 20. 10 11


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

early medieval Wales specifically, the importance of language and territory to identity construction has been emphasised in scholarship: the Welsh viewed themselves as distinct from other inhabitants of the Insular world due to their language, and fixated on the loss of territory that was originally theirs.18 This study will build upon this previous work in focusing initially on territory and language, before moving on to consider the construction of a shared past. The primary focus will be three texts from ninth- and tenth-century Wales: Historia Brittonum (‘The History of the Britons’), Asser’s Life of King Alfred, and Armes Prydein Vawr (‘The Great Prophecy of Britain’).19 All three texts present a world divided into gentes and set about carving a space for the Welsh in this context, albeit in a different way and for different reasons. To emphasise once more, identities are subjective constructions: all three writers were engaged in a decision-making process, choosing the strategies of distinction that best served their purpose. Nor were they necessarily in agreement. Early medieval identities were not static, but rather underwent constant re-construction, and could be contested.20 This is crucial here as there is a likely chain of familiarity between these three texts. In other words, our writers were engaging with each other’s ideas of identity. This conversation also extended further afield: in some cases, we can see the direct influence of material from England, Ireland, and the Continent on these Welsh texts; elsewhere there are more subtle parallels in their strategies of identity construction. But just as interesting and revealing are the instances where these texts struck their own path. Bringing these works into dialogue with each other, then, is crucial for understanding how identities were constructed and contested in the early middle ages. A closely linked issue grappled with in this study is whether these ideas of identity stretched beyond the texts themselves. Questions of audience, and the relationship between the texts and their intended audiences, are important here: in other words, to what extent were these writers echoing ideas of identity that were more widely held. The importance of the island of Britain as a territorial unit will be considered in Chapter 1, alongside the evidence for the recognition of the Welsh as a distinct gens inhabiting the smaller geographical unit of Wales.21 This will, by necessity, involve a close examination of the names used for these geographical units and the people inhabiting them. Names play an important role in constructing identity; a group is defined in part by the name that it adopts or is given. Yet the study of these names is complicated by the fact that our texts do not always make clear who or what they describe. This chapter will consequently pay close attention to the context in which names are used. Regnal solidarity goes hand in hand with territory and will also be considered here. It has been argued that kings played a key role in the construction of ethnic identities in early medieval Europe, with a close relationship between regna and gentes.22 As we will see, this dimension is absent from the Welsh evidence, raising further questions about the relationship between ethnic and political identities. Chapter 2, in contrast, will turn to a characteristic that is not seen as so significant in other parts of early medieval continental Europe, but is undeniably important in the

McKenna, ‘Inventing Wales’, esp. 145; Charles-Edwards, ‘The Making of Nations’, 26–9. See also Schustereder, Strategies. 19 These texts are discussed in further detail in the final section of this Introduction, see below, 10–19. 20 Pohl, ‘Introduction – Strategies of Identification’, 43. 21 On the terminology used here, see below, 5–6. 22 Goetz, ‘Regna and Gentes: Conclusion’, 623–4. 18



context of Wales: language. Rather than focusing on what our sources have to say about language, this chapter will investigate how these medieval writers themselves use language. We will see how the use of multiple languages in a single text can contribute to creating a distinction between different linguistic groups. The remaining chapters return to a characteristic already identified as important in Historia Brittonum, Isidore of Seville, and works of universal history: the creation of a shared past. Chapters 3 and 4 investigate the centrality of origin legends to the construction of ethnic identity. We have already encountered one such origin legend in Historia Brittonum’s use of the ‘Table of Nations’, and the alternative Trojan origins given to the Britons are also considered here. Interest in the origins of gentes – and the location of these origins in Troy – stretched beyond Wales, and Chapter 3 adopts a comparative approach, seeking to illuminate how Historia Brittonum engaged with material from across Europe. Relativity is important to identity construction: the Welsh might have shared origins, but equally important to their group identity are the different origins given to their neighbours. As such, Chapter 4 will consider the construction of origin legends for other gentes. The final chapter focuses on how the recent past could be harnessed to argue for the creation of different group identities. Accounts of the past, and the identities that they constructed, were contentious. To better understand this contention, Chapter 5 considers the agendas of our writers more closely. We turn, then, from asking how identities were being constructed, to asking why. This list of strategies of distinction is by no means comprehensive, and the importance of additional characteristics will become clear in the ensuing discussion. The identity of the Welsh as Christians, for example, was a predominant theme in accounts of their shared history as a gens. This illustrates a further point, namely that different identities interacted with each other. The construction of ethnic identities might be the primary focus here, but the existence of other group identities impacted upon this process. Religious, political, and regional identities will all be considered.24 There is also significant interaction between the strategies of distinction themselves. Language is a good example: its function as a strategy of distinction cannot be fully understood without considering its relationship to the shared history that it is used to communicate. There will, as a consequence, be significant interaction and dialogue between the chapters of this book. Finally, some justification is required for the use of terms not found in the medieval texts themselves to describe the identities being constructed.25 In this context, the very idea of the existence of ‘Welsh’ identity in the middle ages needs to be clarified. It is the Britons, not the Welsh, whose origins are explained in the ‘Table of Nations’ in Historia Brittonum. The use of language as a strategy of distinction tells a similar story. Brittonic speakers in Wales, Cornwall, north Britain, and Brittany were united by their shared language. The inhabitants of Wales may have spoken a different language to their English neighbours, but it was not exclusively theirs. Brittonic was the language of the Britons. Nor did residing in the geographical unit of Wales grant one automatic entry to this gens: in Historia Brittonum the Irish who settle in parts of Wales do not become Welsh or British, they remain Scotti.26 This serves simply as a 23

Pohl, ‘Telling the Difference’, 25; Pohl, ‘Introduction – Strategies of Identification’, 7. A range of different group identities are defined and compared in Pohl, ‘Introduction – Strategies of Identification’, 14–22. 25 See, for example, Sarah Foot’s argument against the use of ‘state’ to describe England in the early middle ages: ‘The historiography of the Anglo-Saxon “nation-state”’. 26 HB (Harl.), §62 (ed. Faral, III. 42). See further discussion below, 26–8. 23 24


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

flavour of the strategies of distinction that will be discussed in detail in the chapters that follow. For now, they illustrate the point that early medieval writers viewed the Welsh as Britons; the focus was on the construction of a British or Brittonic identity. The use of the terms ‘Welsh’ and ‘Wales’ thus far should therefore be viewed as tentative and contested. Can we talk of the existence of Welsh identity in the early middle ages? As noted above, Huw Pryce has established that in the twelfth century, Cambro-Latin writers moved away from using Britannia and Brit(t)ones to describe Wales and the Welsh, instead deploying the terms Wallia and Walenses.27 The reasons underlying this shift are complex, but key is the influence of Norman writers, who sought to distinguish the Welsh and Wales from the Bretons and Brittany (as well as from the island of Britain), evidenced by the use of ‘Welsh’ terminology from Domesday Book onwards. The Welsh themselves, Pryce argues, saw the benefits of adopting this terminology in communication with the wider world, as reflected in their use of Wallia in letters to figures such as the archbishop of Canterbury and the pope.28 In terms of the vernacular, Pryce notes that by 1100 Cymry was used for both Wales and the Welsh, but this name could also refer to the Britons more generally, and it is unclear when exactly Cymry came to be used exclusively of the Welsh.29 The role of names in constructing the identity that they express will be explored further in Chapter 1, but it is uncontroversial to say that we can observe ideas of Welsh identity in the twelfth century. Pryce stresses, however, that this is an adoption of a different nomenclature rather than the adoption of a wholesale different identity.30 In other words, the development of a specifically Welsh identity could have occurred earlier, before any change in nomenclature. Whether this is evident in the strategies of identity construction used by our early medieval authors will be considered here. This process is not simply the case of one identity replacing another. Even after the twelfth-century shift in nomenclature, the status of the Welsh as Britons, the original inhabitants of Britain, remained a key part of their identity.31 How these identities interacted, and the role of specific strategies of distinction in facilitating this interaction, will also be an avenue of investigation. The modern scholar will face choices when attempting to navigate this complex quagmire of identities. How to refer to the texts and their authors is particularly problematic. We have had a glimpse, already, of the intricacy of the identities under construction. These three texts were composed by authors based – at least partly, in Asser’s case – in the geographical area that we now know as Wales, referred to as Wallia as early as the twelfth century. Yet they describe early medieval Brittonic-speaking residents of this area as Britons: Brit(t)ones in the Latin texts, and the more ambiguous Kymry in Armes Prydein Vawr. As the authors all appear to have been Brittonic speakers and came from a geographical area within what is now Wales, in what follows I will refer to the texts and their authors as Welsh. This does not, however, presuppose a particular meaning of ‘Welsh’ for any of these writers and their audiences. What exactly it meant – if it meant anything at all – in an early medieval context is an issue to be disentangled in the following chapters.32 29 30 31 32 27 28

Pryce, ‘British or Welsh?’, 780–4. Ibid., 792–6. Ibid., 778–9. Ibid., 799. Ibid., 786–90. Cf. Thomas Charles-Edwards’s comment on the issue: ‘it would be too draconian to prohibit “Welsh”’ (Wales and the Britons, 2).



Nations and National Identity in the Middle Ages Before introducing the sources, it remains to consider the broader relevance and significance of investigating medieval strategies of identity construction. Much ink has been spilt over whether the medieval evidence can contribute anything to our understanding of nations and nationalism. The modernist view asserts that it cannot: nations are products of modernity, whether linked to the development of the printing press or industrialisation.33 There is greater flexibility to be found in certain quarters. Joep Leerssen, for example, posits the existence of ‘national thought’ – namely the perception of society as divided into distinct nations with their own cultural identities – prior to the development of the political ideology of nationalism.34 Nevertheless, Leerssen does not see any evidence for the existence of national thought in the middle ages. Drawing on the work of Gerald of Wales, he argues that the distinction of greatest importance to medieval writers was that between civilised and barbarian peoples.35 This distinction was undoubtedly important, but not, as we will see in Chapter 4, incompatible with belief in a world divided into gentes possessing different cultural identities. We have already had a taste of the evidence for the construction of ethnic identities in the early middle ages, evidence that argues against its exclusion from the debate. If scholars of modern nations were to turn their attention to Isidore of Seville, they might see something familiar in his definition of a gens. The modernist view has been increasingly contested. The centrality of the printing press to the narrative of the development of nations has been challenged, with attention to the importance of the vernacular – both written and oral – and the Bible in shaping ideas of nationhood in the pre-modern period.36 Medieval writers were just as adept at manipulating the past to construct identities as those in later ages.37 And it has been pointed out that nations and national identity would hardly look the same across all chronological areas and geographical periods. Medieval gentes might not correspond exactly to modern nations – we would not expect them to – but we should not dispute their own understanding of their collective identities.38 This is not to reduce all scholarship on pre-modern nations to a monolith. The same objections to the modernist view are cited again and again, but there is significant divergence in the alternative models offered. Anthony Smith, perhaps the most prominent critic of the modernist theory, argues for the existence of precursors to modern nations, which he terms ethnie.39 Others go further, arguing that Smith’s distinction between ethnie

Benedict Anderson argued that the development of printing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was crucial in facilitating ‘simultaneity’, key for inventing the nation: Anderson, Imagined Communities. For the argument of a link with industrialisation see Gellner, Nations and Nationalism. For a discussion and critique of these works (and that of Eric Hobsbawm), see Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism, 20–33. 34 Leerssen, National Thought in Europe, 14. 35 Ibid., 26–31. The importance of this distinction is evident in earlier works too. See, for example, Bede’s presentation of Cadwallon as a barbarian, in contrast to the Christian Kentish and Northumbrian kings: Charles-Edwards, ‘Bede, the Irish and the Britons’, esp. 47, 51–2. 36 Roshwald, The Endurance of Nationalism, 10–11; R. R. Davies, ‘Nations and National Identities’, 569; Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood, 5, 24. 37 Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism, 30–1. 38 R. R. Davies, ‘Nations and National Identities’, 569–72. 39 A. D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations; A. D. Smith, The Antiquity of Nations. 33


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

and nations is exaggerated; nations themselves existed in the pre-modern period.40 Early expressions of national identity have been identified in ancient Athens, ninthand tenth-century England, and late medieval Germany.41 This does not mean that every grouping in the pre-modern world is, or ought to be, labelled a nation. Many explanations of the development of nations and nationalisms – in both the modern and pre-modern world – highlight the importance of political sovereignty.42 There is no space for medieval Wales here. The Welsh were not a single gens in possession of a single political unit, nor was there any explicit wish for such sovereignty. As will be discussed further in Chapter 1, the belief that the island of Britain was rightfully theirs to inhabit was not accompanied by any desire to establish political unity. This lack of political sovereignty has been seen as an obstacle to the existence of the Welsh as a nation in other periods too. Writing in 1966, J. R. Jones claimed that the Welsh could not be a nation because they only possessed two of the required bindings – language and territory. Their territorial and linguistic unit was out of sync with the state to which they belonged.43 This does not mean that we should simply show medieval ideas of Welsh identity the door. We might not be seeing the same ideas of political unity as evidenced in the English kingdoms during this period, but national identity could take other forms. Leerssen’s distinction between nationalism as a political ideology and national thought as an acknowledgement of national units with distinct cultural identities might be helpful here.44 In the case of early medieval Wales we might posit the existence of a cultural nationhood rather than a political nationalism. As we would not expect all modern nations to be identical, medieval group identities were constructed in different circumstances and took on a different character as a consequence. Indeed, early medieval England might be the exception, rather than the rule.45 These processes are linked, and the relationship between the development of English political identity and the construction of Welsh identity will be discussed further in Chapter 5. There is also a place for fruitful dialogue between the medieval and modern evidence when we turn from the issue of existence to questions of construction. It is held that the construction of a modern nation relies on the invention of tradition; the forging of a shared past.46 This view should not be swallowed uncritically: distilling the invention of tradition to a single moment in time is a simplification of a much more Roshwald, The Endurance of Nationalism, 11. For the argument that England was a nation in the early middle ages, see Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood, 38–43. Caspar Hirschi argues that nationalism emerged in Germany in response to the legacy of the Roman empire in a territorially fragmented medieval Europe: The Origins of Nationalism. On nationalism and the ancient Greek cities see Roshwald, The Endurance of Nationalism, 22–9. 42 See, for example, Gat and Yakobson, Nations, 24: ‘a people becomes a nation when it is politically sovereign’; Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood, 2–3, 25. See also, although focusing on a political dimension to a lesser extent: Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism, 47. 43 J. R. Jones, Prydeindod, 9–10, 18–19. For further discussion, see B. M. Jenkins, Between Wales and England, 21–5. 44 Leerssen, National Thought in Europe, 14–15. J. R. Jones (Prydeindod, 9–10, 18–19) draws a similar distinction between ‘nation’ and ‘people’: the Welsh, being in possession of a shared language and territory, but without a corresponding state, fall into the latter category. 45 Adrian Hastings argues that England is the earliest example of a nation and nation-state, unique in the context of early medieval Europe: The Construction of Nationhood, 5. See also J. Campbell, The Anglo-Saxon State. 46 Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition. 40 41



complex process. The medieval period could certainly be manipulated by modern nationalisms, as the work of Patrick Geary has illustrated.48 But there is nothing peculiarly modern about this misuse of the past. The strategy of identifying a ‘primary moment of acquisition’, the moment in the past when a nation claims to have established itself in its given territory, and after which all further migration to that territory is deemed illegitimate, can also be seen in the works of medieval writers.49 Chapter 4 will show how both Historia Brittonum and Armes Prydein make use of this strategy in their treatment of migration to Britain. Indeed, Caspar Hirschi has demonstrated that certain national symbols identified by Hobsbawm as modern inventions in the service of nation-building are in fact pre-modern in origin.50 This is not to deny that some modern nationalisms misuse the past, but medieval writers had no scruples about doing so either and, in some cases, these modern nationalisms were building on this earlier work. This leads us to the final issue of continuity. Medieval writers were engaged in a process of constructing group identities. Some might call these nations; others might prefer to see them as proto-nations. Their existence nevertheless suggests that the process of nation-building in the modern era did not occur in a vacuum. Not every modern nation had a medieval predecessor, nor is there a straightforward link between them. But in certain cases, we might not be looking at the invention of tradition so much as the re-invention, recycling, or adaptation of tradition. The treatment of medieval Wales in the Victorian period serves as an instructive example. Huw Pryce has highlighted the centrality of the narratives of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Brut y Tywysogyon to the presentation of past.51 The agenda here was not political independence for Wales, but its treatment as an equal partner within its union with England.52 In emphasising the Trojan origins of the Welsh and tracking their history through to the rule of the princes, writers were very clearly drawing on medieval material and traditions.53 There is some continuity here, then. This is not, however, to deprive these writers of their agency – turning to Geoffrey of Monmouth was a choice. A similar view is expressed by Martha Vandrei, who argues that the invention of tradition is a process, often spanning centuries. Focusing in particular on the representation of Boudica and ancient Britain, she points to continuity in historical representation.54 Modern nationalisms were and are engaged in a process of construction, selecting, and presenting material in a way to suit their own ends. But rarely is this material plucked from thin air. Modern strategies of identity construction did not develop in a vacuum, nor should they be studied in isolation. Ultimately, much of the debate over the existence of nations in the pre-modern period is a matter of semantics. We have already encountered plentiful evidence to show that medieval writers divided the world into gentes. Whatever we choose to label these group identities and the process of their construction, the evidence must 47

Vandrei, Queen Boudica, 6–7, quoting a warning by J. G. A. Pocock concerning this simplification. See also Evans and Pryce, ‘Writing a Small Nation’s Past’, 7–8. 48 Geary, The Myth of Nations. See also Evans and Marchal, The Uses of the Middle Ages; Leerssen, National Thought in Europe, 25–6. 49 Geary, The Myth of Nations, 8, 11–12. 50 Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism, 30–2. 51 Pryce, ‘Medieval Welsh History’, 3. 52 Ibid., 20. 53 Pryce, ‘Irish and Welsh Middle Ages’, 221–2. 54 Vandrei, Queen Boudica, 6–7. 47


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

be approached on its own terms, and in its own context. No two expressions of group identity were identical, medieval or modern. But an eye must also be kept on the broader picture. This book contends that there were ideas of national identity to be found in these ninth- and tenth-century Welsh texts, and that there is a place for medieval evidence in the debate over nations and nationalism. Early medieval authors did not conceive of a Welsh nation, as would be defined by scholars of modern nations. What we see here is an expression of cultural identity, different even to expressions of the political identity of certain gentes found in the works of other contemporary writers. There is also a case for continuity, as the brief comparison with J. R. Jones’s views above illustrates. The role that these authors played in the process of developing tradition has ramifications for how we understand the construction of Welsh identity in other periods.

The Sources What follows is an introduction to the three sources at the centre of this study: Historia Brittonum, Asser’s Life of King Alfred, and Armes Prydein Vawr. This includes an overview of the scope of each text, a discussion of date and historical context, and a consideration of the manuscript evidence and survival of different versions. There is much that is contentious about these texts and this section will also recap the main debates. All three texts are preoccupied with gentes and their identities. Historia Brittonum is a history of the Britons that establishes their origins as a single gens and recounts their interaction with the other gentes inhabiting Britain and Ireland. The Life of King Alfred might be a biography of a single king, but Asser also dwells on the ethnic makeup of Alfred’s kingdom and relations between the king and various gentes, including the Welsh. Finally, Armes Prydein Vawr calls on a grand coalition of gentes to stand united against a single enemy, the English. There is much to pursue here in relation to the construction of identities, but in what follows attention will be drawn to aspects that are of particular relevance to this study. Historia Brittonum Historia Brittonum is a history of the Britons, narrating their journey from Troy to Britain, and their subsequent relations with the Irish, Romans, and Saxons down to the seventh century. Its composition can be dated to 829–30 on the basis of a chronological calculation that gives the number of years from the arrival of the Saxons in Britain to the fourth year of King Merfyn’s reign.55 Historia Brittonum is grouped into six recensions, the earliest being the Harleian recension (named after its oldest manuscript London, British Library Harley 3859). This study will focus primarily on this recension but will draw comparisons with other recensions where illuminating.56 In some cases, the text has been adapted, explanatory 55 56

For discussion of the date, see Dumville, ‘Some Aspects’. For an outline of the text’s development and the relationship between the different recensions, see Guy, ‘The Origins’, 48–9. Faral’s edition (La légende, III. 4–62), which is followed here, uses the Harley 3859 text. However, in certain instances this edition is compared with that of David Dumville (‘Textual History’, I. 167–271) which includes readings from other manuscript witnesses of the Harleian recension. Consequent adaptation of Faral’s text is noted in the footnotes.



glosses provided, or entire sections removed, thus giving us valuable insight into how Historia Brittonum was interpreted by later compilers. Harley 3859 is the oldest manuscript copy of the Harleian recension, dating from the first half of the twelfth century. In this manuscript, Historia Brittonum is interpolated with a series of annals (the Harleian Chronicle, otherwise known as the A-text of the Annales Cambriae), and a collection of genealogies conventionally labelled the ‘Harleian genealogies’.57 It is well established that this collection of sources, as they survive in the manuscript, was brought together in Dyfed during the reign of Owain ap Hywel Dda (ob. 988).58 Also significant is Ben Guy’s convincing argument for an earlier stage in the transmission of these texts. This model proposes that the texts were initially brought together at Abergele ca 858, Historia Brittonum being interpolated with a north Welsh chronicle likely kept at Abergele, and the Harleian genealogies composed as an ‘illustrative appendix’.59 The relationship between these texts is crucial for understanding their preoccupations and function. Historia Brittonum’s authorship has been a subject of contention, with debate over the authenticity of the preface, only found in the later Nennian recension, naming ‘Nennius’ as the author.60 David Dumville has rejected this attribution, arguing that the preface was a forgery (perhaps dating from the eleventh century) and never part of the original text.61 This view is challenged by Ben Guy, who proposes that the preface was part of the archetypal text but was subsequently removed. Its absence from the Harleian recension in particular might be explained by its derogatory attitude towards the Britons.62 Here the author will be referred to as ‘Nennius’. There is much about the preface that is common trope, including, for example, the author’s claim that he is not worthy of completing the task.63 Whether the preface

Scholars have recently moved away from using the A-, B-, and C-text of Annales Cambriae as labels for these chronicles as they are not, as these names imply, different versions of the same chronicle. The name Harleian Chronicle is taken from the manuscript in which the chronicle is found, see Guy, ‘The Origins’, 25–6. The Harleian Chronicle’s final entry is for 954, and for this period all three chronicles are based on the same St Davids chronicle. Consequently, where material is shared between all three texts, reference will be to the Welsh annals. I will most frequently, however, refer to the Harleian Chronicle specifically. 58 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 437–8. 59 Guy, ‘The Origins’. This earlier ‘Abergele chronicle’ would have included notices relating to north Wales and drew on the same source used in the ‘Northern History’ section of Historia Brittonum to report events in northern Britain (this source is discussed further below, 142). The material underlying this chronicle may have been gathered earlier, but Guy argues that the ‘“Abergele chronicle” proper’ emerges only after its integration into Historia Brittonum, as it was composed within this chronological framework, perhaps as a continuation to the 445 edition of Prosper’s Epitoma chronicon (‘The Origins’, 42–4). After arriving at St Davids in the second half of the ninth century/first half of the tenth century, this ‘Abergele chronicle’ would have been combined with the annals kept at St Davids from the late-eighth century and material from a version of the Clonmacnoise Chronicle to create the Harleian Chronicle. This proposed model is summarised in ‘The Origins’, 55. 60 The form Ninnius in the Nennian recension is thought to be a corruption of Nemniuus: Guy, ‘The Origins’, 51. 61 Dumville, ‘“Nennius” and the Historia Brittonum’. 62 Guy, ‘The Origins’, 47–53. Cf. Field, ‘Nennius’. 63 Cf. Einhard, Vita Karoli, prologue (ed. Holder-Egger, 1–2); Adomnán, Vita Columbae, preface (ed. and transl. Anderson and Anderson, 2–3); DEB, §1 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 13–16, 87–9). 57


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was originally part of the Harleian recension aside, the assertion that Nennius simply made a heap of all the material he stumbled upon has been convincingly dismissed.64 The structure of Historia Brittonum can be outlined as follows:65 I. The Six Ages of the World (§§1–6)66 II. Description of Britain (§§7–9) III. Settlement of the Britons, Picts, and Irish (§§10–18) IV. Roman Britain (§§19–30) V. The Coming of the Saxons (§31) VI. The Raising of Cadell by Germanus (§§32–5) VII. Gwrtheyrn’s Pact with the Saxons (§§36–8) VIII. Germanus Confronts Gwrtheyrn (§39) IX. Emrys’s Prophecy (§§40–2) X. Gwrthefyr’s Battles Against the Saxons (§§43–4) XI. The Treachery of the Long Knives (§§45–6) XII. Germanus Pursues Gwrtheyrn; Death of Gwrtheyrn (§§47–9) XIII. Life of St Patrick (§§50–5) XIV. Arthur’s Battles Against the Saxons (§56) XV. The Northern History (§§57–65) XVI. [Chronological Calculations, introduction to the Harleian Chronicle (§66), the chronicle, and genealogies] XVII. The Cities of Britain (§66a) XVIII. Marvels (§§67–75) This breakdown illustrates the apparent disorganisation at the centre of the text. After the section on Roman Britain the narrative jumps back and forth between the activities of St Germanus, Gwrtheyrn, and Hengist and Horsa. Both the account of Roman Britain and the ‘Northern History’ are structured in part to progress from one ruler to the next, the former from emperor to emperor, the latter using a Northumbrian regnal list. The intervening sections might appear as a random selection of material thrust together without a discernible structure, but there is, in fact, order at the heart of this ostensible chaos. Patrick Sims-Williams has drawn attention to the use of foreshadowing in the text, for example. According to Nennius, Urien fought with varying success against Deodric of Bernicia: sometimes the citizens, sometimes the enemy were victorious. Urien trapped Deodric on the island of Lindisfarne for three Dumville, ‘Sub-Roman Britain’, 176–7; Dumville, ‘The Historical Value’, 20–1. Cf. the structure outlined in Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 439–40. 66 Faral’s edition does not include a section number 6, instead proceeding from §5 (a summary of the six ages) to §7 (a description of Britain). Mommsen’s edition labels the six ages of the world as §§1–6, the description of Britain starting at §7: ‘Historia Brittonum’, 145–7. 64 65



days and three nights, before he was stabbed in the back by Morgant, after which the fortunes of the Britons collapsed.67 Sims-Williams observes that this sequence was in fact foreshadowed by the activities of Gwrthefyr, son of Gwrtheyrn, who fought against Hengist and Horsa. As in the case of Urien, he was sometimes victorious, sometimes defeated, and he confined Hengist and Horsa to the island of Thanet three times, paralleling Urien’s victory at Lindisfarne. Gwrthefyr may not be killed by his fellow Britons, but they do act dishonourably on his death, consequently allowing the Saxons to regain their territory in Britain.68 Historia Brittonum is littered with instances of foreshadowing, parallels, and contrasts. Another illustrative example can be found in the account of the activities of St Germanus. Germanus’s defeat of the tyrant Benlli (§32–4) foreshadows his defeat of Gwrtheyrn later in the narrative (§47), with both kings destroyed by divine fire, paralleling the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. Moreover, the actions and subsequent experiences of Cadell are in direct contrast, not only to Benlli, but also to Gwrtheyrn. Cadell receives Germanus kindly and treats him with reverence, being consequently rewarded with the kingdom of Powys (§35). Gwrtheyrn, however, attempts to trick Germanus, prefers the counsel of his magi, and is subsequently destroyed by the saint. The transition from the arrival of the Saxons (§31) to Germanus’s interaction with Cadell and Benlli (§§32–5) may appear jarring at first, but there is in fact a link between the two sections. When Cadell encounters Germanus he is said to have received the saint and his entourage kindly (et benigne suscepit eos). This echoes the earlier description of Gwrtheyrn’s reception of the Saxons (suscepit eos benigne).69 Cadell received Germanus kindly and is rewarded with the kingship of Powys. Gwrtheyrn receives the Saxons kindly and loses everything. The contrast lies not only in the subsequent actions of Germanus and the Saxons, but also in their faith; the paganism of the Saxon is highlighted from the outset. Gwrtheyrn is punished for aligning himself with pagans, whilst Cadell forms an alliance with a holy man and is rewarded. Nennius did not simply make a heap of the sources at his disposal: nothing about Historia Brittonum is accidental. The purpose of this work is nevertheless ambiguous. It can be established from the outset that Historia Brittonum was not composed for the promotion of a dynasty: the sympathies of Nennius are difficult to deduce and, the dating clause referring to Merfyn Frych aside, there is no indication that he was writing a history of the Merfynion, or, indeed, of any other dynasty. This is a history of the Britons: Cadell of Powys sits side by side with Maelgwn Gwynedd and the kings of the ‘Old North’. Of course, this raises interesting questions about the construction of both ethnic and political identities in the text that will be investigated in the chapters that follow. Historia Brittonum may have been an attempt to set out the history of the Britons on their own terms; a different narrative to that provided by Gildas and Bede.70 More specifically, it has been suggested that Nennius was reacting to Bede’s accusation that the Britons refused to help convert the Saxons by stressing that Edwin of Northumbria was baptised by Rhun ab Urien.71 An alternative 69 70

HB (Harl.), §63 (ed. Faral, III. 43). HB (Harl.), §§43–4 (ed Faral, III. 33). Sims-Williams, ‘The Death of Urien’, 35–6. HB (Harl.), §§31, 32 (ed. Faral, III. 23, 25). Cf. Thomas Charles-Edwards’s description of the text as offering an ‘apologia pro gente sua’: Wales and the Britons, 447. 71 Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 434; Higham, ‘Historical Narrative’, 76; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 446–7. 67 68


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interpretation is that Nennius focused on the past failing of the Britons to persuade his contemporaries to unite against the Saxons. What the accounts of Gwrthefyr and Urien illustrate is that Britain was not won by the Saxons, but rather lost by the Britons; when the fortunes of the Britons were improving, their disunity soon turned any success against the Saxons to failure.72 This brief introduction does not seek to resolve the thorny issue of Historia Brittonum’s purpose. An investigation into how Nennius constructed identities in the text will, however, inevitably lead us back to consideration of his reasons for composing it in the first place. The writing of history is a key strategy of distinction that will be considered at length in Chapters 3 and 4. How Nennius went about composing his history of the Britons may cast further light on why he did so. Asser’s Life of King Alfred The Life of King Alfred is the earliest example of royal biography to survive from medieval Britain. The only known medieval manuscript of the Life (London, British Library, Cotton Otho A.xii) was copied in England ca 1000, but the section containing the biography was destroyed by fire in 1731, leaving us reliant on early modern transcriptions.73 Doubts about the work’s authenticity have been convincingly dismissed: this biography of Alfred the Great (ob. 899) was composed by Asser of St Davids in 893.74 A significant portion of the work is a Latin translation of the Old English annals of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. But to reduce the biography to a simple translation is to do Asser a great disservice. The Life of King Alfred includes a wealth of additional, often unique, material. We are told, for example, that the marriage of Burgred of Mercia and the daughter of the West Saxon king Æthelwulf occurred at the royal estate of Chippenham, and Asser also gives us a lengthy account of a battle at Countisbury in 878.75 Nor does the biography stick entirely to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s framework: Asser adds substantial new sections, including discussion of Alfred’s character, the king’s search for scholars, and his own experience at the West Saxon court.76 We are reliant on Asser, too, for much of what we know about Anglo Sims-Williams, ‘The Death of Urien’, 37. Cf. Thomas Charles Edwards’s suggestion that Historia Brittonum sought to encourage the Britons to come to terms with their situation: ‘The Arthur of History’, 20. See also Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 413: ‘it might be argued that these Christian peoples should coexist in shared dominion of the island’. 73 Gneuss and Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, 276. The compiler of the twelfth-century socalled Annals of St Neots appears to have been familiar with a different version of Asser’s Life. All other later sources using the biography appear to use the version contained in the Cotton manuscript: Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 56‒7; Dumville and Lapidge, The Annals of St Neots, xlii. 74 Alfred Smyth has made the most recent case for the work being a forgery: The Medieval Life, esp. 97‒173. See also Galbraith, ‘Who wrote Asser’s Life of Alfred?’. For detailed and convincing rebuttals see Nelson, ‘Waiting for Alfred’; Keynes, ‘On the Authenticity of Asser’s Life’. For an earlier case for Asser’s authenticity, see Whitelock, The Genuine Asser. 75 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§9, 54 (ed. Stevenson, 8, 43–4; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 69, 83–4). 76 The substantial additional sections are as follows: an account of the rebellion against Æthelwulf and the explanation of the status of the king’s wife in Wessex through recounting the story of Eadburh, daughter of Offa (§§11–16); account of Alfred’s childhood (§§21–25); Alfred’s illness, the summoning of scholars to Wessex, the submission of the Welsh (§§73–81). Asser stops translating the chronicle in 887 and the remainder of the biography recounts Alfred learning to read and his governance of the kingdom (§§87–106). Generally, these additional sections are incorporated into the narrative at points that make thematic and/or chronological sense. For discussion 72



Welsh relations in the ninth century. It is here that we must look for information about the relationship between Wales and Mercia, the submission of the Welsh kings to Alfred, and Anarawd of Gwynedd’s interaction with the Northumbrians. This is an invaluable text that goes above and beyond what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle offers: the biography, Asser claims, is a window into Alfred’s life, character, and the politics of early medieval Britain. Of course, this must all be taken with a generous pinch of salt: Asser was not a disinterested observer. The biography had its purpose. It is well established that Asser was writing for a Welsh audience of some sort.77 This argument rests largely on the inclusion of ‘Welsh’ material in the Life of King Alfred, including the provision of Welsh place- and river-names, focus on Anglo-Welsh relations, and digressions to discuss the author’s own background at St Davids. Attention has been drawn too to aspects of the work that would not necessarily have been well received by an Alfredian court audience, such as the negative treatment of the Mercians.78 Certain planks of this case are not entirely firm underfoot. The provision of Welsh place- and river-names needs to be treated with care, as will be discussed further in Chapter 2, and Chapter 5 considers Asser’s attitude towards the Mercians in greater detail. Nevertheless, Asser goes to extensive lengths to explain – and justify – his decision to leave St Davids and enter Alfred’s service, explaining that he would divide his time equally between Wessex and St Davids, and that the latter would benefit from Alfred’s protection. It seems likely that such an account was intended to placate the community that he had left behind, especially as he may even have been their bishop.79 There is some evidence that the biography reached an audience in Wales. Gerald of Wales was familiar with the Life of King Alfred, citing the biography in his Life of St Æthelberht, written in the 1190s, but it is not certain that he came across the text in a Welsh context.80 Of greater significance here is the possibility that the poet of Armes Prydein Vawr was familiar with the biography.81 As will be discussed further below, the poem may well have been composed at St Davids in the tenth century, and so it might be that a copy of the Life of King Alfred found its way there not long after its completion by Asser. This is not implausible: Asser tells us that he continued to divide his time between Wessex and St Davids after entering Alfred’s service, and the text could very well have accompanied Asser on his travels, as a draft or in its finished state. The Welsh need not have been the sole intended audience, however. The biography is of course dedicated to Alfred and, considering Asser’s own position in the community of scholars at the West Saxon court, he may well have planned for his work


80 78 79


of the structure used by Asser (and comparison with the structure of Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne), see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 455–62. Schutt, ‘The Literary Form of Asser’s “Vita Alfredi”’, 189, 204; Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 56; Keynes, ‘Review Article: On the Authenticity of Asser’s Life of King Alfred’, 540; Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great, 109; Kirby, ‘Asser and his Life of King Alfred’, 17. Keynes, ‘King Alfred and the Mercians’, 42–3. For this argument in full see R. Thomas, ‘The Vita Alcuini’. Keynes, ‘The Power of the Written Word’, 181–2, n. 31; Brett, ‘John Leland’, 174–5. On the Life of St Æthelbert see Bartlett, Gerald of Wales, 118, n. 58, 145. Thomas and Callander, ‘Reading Asser in Early Medieval Wales’.


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

to be read there too. James Campbell pointed to certain elements, for example Asser’s concern with West-Saxon fortifications, that suggested a West Saxon readership.83 Alban Gautier has similarly raised the possibility of a court audience, highlighting a preoccupation with issues such as the status of the queen and Æthelwulf’s will, which would make the most sense in this context. He suggests that the work may have been composed to promote the succession of Alfred’s sons (rather than his nephews), hence Asser’s depiction of Alfred’s brothers as inferior rulers.84 There is no need to restrict ourselves to any one intended group of readers. When it comes down to it, the biography is a celebration of Alfred ‘omnium Brittanniae insulae Christianorum rector’.85 Perhaps we need not look further for a statement of intended audience. Indeed, attention has largely fixated on the possibility of a Welsh audience, but, as Charles Insley has suggested, Asser might also have had the Cornish in his sights.86 This is not to simplify Asser’s message, or to reduce interpretation of his work to generalisations. It is likely that there were specific reasons for composing the Life of King Alfred, not least Asser’s desire to present his patron to the community at St Davids and to justify his own actions. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the fact that the work also contained a much broader message that was applicable to multiple audiences, namely that of peace and prosperity under Alfred’s rule.87 This serves simply as an introduction; questions of audience and purpose will re-surface throughout this book. This introduction has also, however, established something of what makes this text so interesting from the point of view of identity construction. Asser is translating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a text that has itself been the subject of investigation over its construction of English identity, raising questions of how he locates the Welsh within this framework (see discussion in Chapters 1 and 5). Something of an answer is given in the dedication that we have already encountered, which addresses Alfred as ruler of all Christians of Britain. There is much to discuss about the interaction between ethnic and religious identities here, then. The very process of translation also raises questions about the role of language to identity construction, with the provision of Welsh place- and river-names in particular being considered in Chapter 2. Asser himself was an individual who moved between different contexts: he was a monk and perhaps bishop of St Davids, a scholar at the West Saxon court, and held ecclesiastical positions in the south-west, at Exeter and then Sherborne.88 Crucially, he tells us something of these experiences. Asser is the only one of our three writers who inserts himself into his text in such a way – an unusual method in the context of royal biography more broadly, see Chapter 5 – providing us with ample opportunity to explore the relationship between the 82

The likely influential position held by Asser at the West Saxon court has recently been elucidated by Robert Gallagher, who raises the possibility that Asser may have been responsible for composing certain royal diplomas: ‘Asser and the Writing of West Saxon Charters’. I am grateful to Dr Gallagher for sharing this article with me ahead of its publication. 83 J. Campbell, ‘Asser’s Life of Alfred’, 123. 84 Gautier, Asser, liii–liv. 85 Asser, Life of King Alfred, dedication (ed. Stevenson, 1; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 67): ‘ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain’. 86 Insley, ‘Athelstan’, 19. This possibility is discussed further in Chapter 2. 87 David Kirby has suggested that different sections of the Life were intended for different audiences: ‘Asser and his Life of King Alfred’, 20–35. Cf. J. Campbell, ‘Asser’s Life of Alfred’, 133–5. This discussion will illustrate, however, that Asser’s biography works as a single whole. 88 Cf. similar comments made by Walter Pohl about Paul the Deacon: Pohl, ‘Paul the Deacon’, 114. 82



construction of individual and group identities. Put simply, who was the Asser who wrote the Life of King Alfred? Armes Prydein Vawr The poem Armes Prydein Vawr, found in the Book of Taliesin (saec. XIV¹), prophesies the eviction of the English from Britain by a grand coalition of peoples, including the Britons, the Irish, the Hiberno-Scandinavians, and the Scots.89 This coalition, according to the poet, has the support of God and St David, and will be led by the legendary Cynan and Cadwaladr.90 The poet argues that the settlement of the English in Britain is illegitimate, drawing both on their past actions as followers of Hengist and Horsa, and their current interaction with the Welsh under the mechteyrn (‘Great King’) to support this position. Ifor Williams was of the view that the poet’s preoccupation with the payment of tribute to a mechteyrn could be connected to William of Malmesbury’s account of the submission of the Welsh kings to Æthelstan at the Council of Hereford, thus giving the poem a date of ca 930.91 Subsequent interpretations have not usually strayed too far from this proposed context, and the poem’s mechteyrn is most frequently identified as either Æthelstan (r. 924/5–39) or his successor, Edmund (r. 939–46).92 Williams also pointed to the resemblance between the poet’s proposed coalition and the allies who fought against Æthelstan at the battle of Brunanburh. He argued that the poem must have been composed in the lead-up to the battle, providing a terminus ad quem of 937 for its composition.93 That the poem bears some connection to the battle of Brunanburh is generally accepted, even if the exact nature of this association is debated.94 Williams also drew attention to the use of Glywyssyg (Glywysing), rather than the eleventh-century term Morgannwg, to describe the kingdom of southeast Wales, the labelling of the Hiberno-Scandinavians as gynhon (‘gentes’, pagans), and the allusion to an alliance between the West Saxons and the Mercians reflecting tenth-century political developments.95 If the poet is serious about the participation Ifor Williams’s edition is used here (Armes Prydein). All translations my own unless otherwise stated. I occasionally refer to the English edition and translation of the poem (Williams and Bromwich, Armes Prydein). For discussion of the date of the Book of Taliesin see Haycock, ‘Llyfr Taliesin’. 90 For discussion of Cynan see Dumville, ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 153‒6. For Cadwaladr, see Bromwich, Trioedd, 292‒3. 91 Williams, Armes Prydein, xv–xvi. 92 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 520–1; Tolstoy, ‘When and Where was Armes Prydein Composed’; Breeze, ‘Armes Prydein’. Cf. Fulton, ‘Tenth-Century Wales’, dating the poem to the period immediately after the death of Hywel Dda in 950. 93 Williams, Armes Prydein, xx. For discussion of this proposed historical context, see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 521–7; W. Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages, 114; Foot, Æthelstan, 169‒85; Keynes, ‘England c. 900‒1016’; Kirby, ‘Hywel Dda’. 94 David Dumville argues that it is more likely that the poem was composed following Brunanburh and the later events of 940, with the poet realising that the involvement of the Welsh would be crucial to the success of a further uprising: ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 148. 95 Williams, Armes Prydein, xi‒xii, xv. As Morgannwg is so called after Morgan ab Owain (ob. 974) it is likely that this name for the kingdom was coined towards the end of the tenth century. For discussion, see Dumville, ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 145, n. 4. For discussion of gynhon, see below, 127–8. The interpretation of lines 108–10 (‘pan dyffo Iwys y vn gwssyl / vn cor vn gyghor a Lloegyr lloscit’, ed. Williams, 4) as an allusion to an alliance between the West Saxons 89


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

of gwyr Dulyn in the coalition, then we might also exclude the period 902–17, during which time the Hiberno-Scandinavians had been expelled from Dublin. The dynasty of Ívarr began to regain ground in Ireland in 914 but only returned to Dublin in 917.96 Of course, the degree to which the poet was constrained by such realities is uncertain – it is unlikely that they would have expected a force to come from Brittany, for example – and gwyr Dulyn may have simply been used as a name for the Hiberno-Scandinavians, whether they were currently based in Dublin or not.97 The poet’s treatment of historical reality, and the presentation of gwyr Dulyn more specifically, will be considered further in Chapter 4. This tenth-century date for the poem has not gone unchallenged. The poem refers to Gwydyl Iwerdon Mon a Phrydyn as participants in the coalition, and the phrase Gwydyl…Mon has been interpreted as ‘the Irish of Anglesey’.98 On this basis Colmán Etchingham has dated the poem to the eleventh century, when the Irish kings controlled Dublin and possibly exerted overlordship over Gwynedd.99 It is not implausible, however, that there would have been Irish speakers present on Anglesey in the tenth century.100 Nor is it certain that Gwydyl…Mon ought to be interpreted as ‘the Irish of Anglesey’. Thus, Barry Lewis has suggested that Mon could simply be a reference to Anglesey in apposition to Gwydyl Iwerdon. The line might be translated ‘the Irish of Ireland, Anglesey, and Alba’, the latter two names referring to the inhabitants of those regions, Anglesey perhaps representing Gwynedd.101 There is insufficient reason to shift the poem’s composition to the eleventh century, then. The evidence for Armes Prydein’s tenth-century date contains some weak links – the relationship between the West Saxons and Mercians, for example. Nevertheless, as already argued for Asser’s Welsh audience, the case for a tenth-century date does not collapse if these planks are removed: the weight of combined evidence places the poem safely in this context.

and Mercians is not certain, however. Indeed, in Welsh poetry Lloegyr is more commonly used to refer to the territory, with Lloegrwys used to refer to its inhabitants. See the use of Lloegyr in the following, for example: Y Gododdin, lines 481, 1160 (ed. Williams, Canu Anerin, 19, 46); Englynion Cadwallon, englynion 2, 11 (ed. and transl. Rowland, 446, 447, 495); Marwnat Owein, line 13 (ed. Williams, Canu Taliesin, 12); Gwen a Llywarch, englyn 11 (ed. and transl. Rowland, 405, 469); Pyll, englyn 39 (ed. and transl. Rowland, 410, 471). It is more likely that Armes Prydein’s Lloegyr is a reference to territory, and a should be interpreted as the conjunction ‘and’ rather than the preposition ‘with’. Graham Isaac’s translation is attractive: ‘when the men of Wessex meet for counsel, in one chorus with one counsel, and England will burn’: Isaac, ‘Armes Prydain’, 177. 96 Downham, Viking Kings, 27–32. 97 On the unlikelihood of the Bretons participating in the coalition, see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 519–20; Dumville, ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 151–3. Cf. Fulton, ‘Tenth-Century Wales’, 7, who dates the poem to ca 920–55, the period when Wales ‘was relatively free from Viking attack’ and thus a context in which the poet might feasibly look to gwyr Dulyn for assistance. The poet overlooked historical reality in the treatment of Hiberno-Scandinavians, however, as is discussed further below, 127–9. 98 APV, line 10 (ed. Williams, 1). 99 Etchingham, ‘North Wales’, 184‒5. 100 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 528–9; Dunshea, ‘The Brittonic Kingdoms’, 156. On the evidence for Scandinavian settlement in north Wales in the tenth century see W. Davies, Patterns of Power, 51–6. 101 Lewis, ‘A New Synthesis’, 231.



It has been suggested that the poem was composed in south Wales, perhaps at St Davids.102 There is plenty of evidence to support this conclusion: the poet refers to the kingdoms of south Wales, Dyfed and Glywysing, and calls upon gwyr deheu (‘men of the South’) to resist the English.103 Moreover, St David is given a prominent position in the poem, in a period before his cult had spread throughout Wales.104 The place-names referred to in the poem are overwhelmingly located in the south.105 It seems most likely, therefore, that the poem was composed in south Wales, but what of the proposed connection with St Davids specifically? This is mainly based on the perceived strong links between the poet and the church, evidenced by the frequent invocations of God, the saints of Britain, and St David.106 Some supporting evidence for this proposition may be found, however, in the poet’s probable familiarity with Historia Brittonum, which was located at St Davids around 954, and possibly made the journey from Gwynedd in the second half of the ninth century or the first half of the tenth century.107 The parallels between the two texts and the likelihood of a connection will be investigated in Chapter 4. Gentes are central to Armes Prydein Vawr. There is much to consider about how the Welsh are located within the proposed grand coalition of peoples, and how the poet differentiates between these gentes and their enemy, the English. This is a poem about seizing land that had previously been lost; geographical designators abound, giving us ample opportunity to consider the role of names and territories to identity construction. Of the three primary texts considered here, this is the only one composed in the vernacular, although all authors make use of multiple languages, as will be discussed further in Chapter 2. It was not the intention of this introduction to provide all the answers, but rather to identify key questions. A crucial point, however, is the intertextuality of these sources and thus the necessarily intertextual focus of the discussion that follows. Armes Prydein illustrates this point well. The poem is chronologically the last text in our sequence. The poet was certainly familiar with Historia Brittonum and may have known Asser’s work too. How the identities constructed in earlier texts were developed, adapted, recycled, and even outright rejected by later writers will be central to this investigation. This will be especially evident when we turn to the treatment of origin legends and the writing of history in Chapters 3–5. However, the very name of a gens was not set in stone. In some cases, the name itself was changed; elsewhere its meaning underwent adaptation. As identities shifted and developed from text to text, so too the names used to express them. These names, and their relationship to territories, will be the subject of Chapter 1. Dumville, ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 148; Isaac, ‘Armes Prydain Fawr’, 162; Williams, Armes Prydein, xx‒xxii. For St Davids in particular: Breeze, ‘Armes Prydein’, 217‒18. 103 APV, lines 78, 99 (ed. Williams, 3–4). 104 For discussion of the poem’s frequent references to St David, see Isaac, ‘Armes Prydain Fawr’. On the development of the saint’s cult, see J. R. Davies ‘Saints of South Wales’. 105 See Map 1. As noted by Thomas Charles-Edwards, it is important to distinguish between the target audience of the poem and the poet’s own location and allegiance. In Charles-Edwards’s view, although it is the inhabitants of Dyfed and Glywysing that the poet seeks to persuade, the poet himself was most likely based in Gwynedd, a kingdom that was more sympathetic to Olaf Guthfrithson’s cause: Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 533. See also Tolstoy, ‘Where and When was Armes Prydein Composed’, 145‒8. To my mind, the concentration of place-names in the south and the focus on St David suggest a southern location for the poem’s composition. 106 G. Thomas, ‘Sylwadau’, 263–4; Williams, Armes Prydein, xxi; Breeze, ‘Armes Prydein’, 217‒18. 107 Guy, ‘The Origins’, 55. See above, 11. 102



Asser took his name from the eighth son of Jacob. In so doing he was in good company: a striking number of ecclesiastical figures in early medieval Wales bore Old Testament names – striking because only a few examples are found in other parts of the Insular world.1 John Reuben Davies links this phenomenon to the taking of Old Testament names by British martyrs during the Roman period, a practice that was preserved by Brittonic-speaking Christians of later centuries.2 There was more to this than the simple choosing of a name might imply. As Davies observes, it speaks to a strong cultural identity that Brittonic speakers preserved a common naming practice that owed its existence to Roman influence and set them apart from their neighbours.3 Names communicate identities: they convey the group(s) to which an individual belongs. But names also construct identities. In a political context, for example, choosing names used by previous dynasties was one way a new dynasty could establish a connection between itself and a particular region. Such a strategy may have been followed by the second dynasty of Gwynedd, the Merfynion, during a period of territorial expansion.4 Similarly, the descendants of Gruffudd ap Cynan (ob. 1137) bore names that were a nod to past kings of Gwynedd – two of his sons being Cadwallon (ob. 1132) and Cadwaladr (ob. 1172). The language of a personal name could also contribute to the construction of a political identity. It may be significant, for example, that Hywel Dda of Dyfed (ob. 950) and Hywel ap Rhys of Glywysing (ob. 886) gave their children English names – Edwin and Erminthridh respectively. Both kings had close links to the English court: Hywel ap Rhys submitted to Alfred in the 880s, and Hywel Dda’s attendance at English assemblies is well documented.5 In these contexts it is likely that the decision to give their children English names stemmed from a desire to advertise their close relationship with the English kings.6 As well as personal names, nicknames and epithets might be drawn upon to express and construct individual identities. These could be adopted by individuals or imposed upon them by others. We gain some insight into this process in Historia A phenomenon noted by Sharpe, ‘The Naming of Bishop Ithamar’, and explored further in J. R. Davies, ‘Old Testament Personal Names’. 2 J. R. Davies, ‘Old Testament Personal Names’, 15. 3 Ibid. 4 Thornton, ‘Predatory Nomenclature and Dynastic Expansion’. 5 For Hywel ap Rhys, see Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80. For discussion of Hywel Dda’s attendance at English assemblies, see Keynes, ‘Welsh Kings at Anglo-Saxon Royal Assemblies’; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 510–19; Loyn, ‘Wales and England in the Tenth Century’. 6 Patrick Sims-Williams refers to Erminthridh as ‘a symptom of the Anglo-Saxon connection’: The Book of Llandaf, 171, n. 104. For further discussion see R. Thomas, ‘Three Welsh Kings’, 585. Cf. Kirby, ‘Hywel Dda’, 6–7. 1


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

Brittonum. Here certain Northumbrian kings are given Welsh epithets, encouraging the audience to perceive them in a specific way.7 To give one example, Æthelfrith (ob. ca 616) is called Flesaur, ‘schemer’ or ‘twister’.8 We might consider too the use of epithets that purport to proclaim the ethnic identity of an individual, such as Sais or Gwyddel. Frederick Suppe observes that in such cases there is frequently an interesting paradox between the Welsh personal name and the epithet that labels the individual ‘other’.9 In other words, those labelled Sais or Gwyddel do not necessarily have English or Irish origins themselves. The reasons for the epithet probably varied – some might have had an English or Irish parent; others may have spent some time in England or Ireland; perhaps they had a knowledge of the English or Irish language.10 There has been much debate, for example, over the identity of Reyn Scotus (Rein Yscot in the vernacular Welsh chronicles), perhaps the son of Maredudd ab Owain (ob. 999), who briefly managed to obtain the kingship of Deheubarth before being defeated by Llywelyn ap Seisyll at Abergwili in 1022.11 It may be that Rhain was a Welshman with Irish connections of some sort rather than an Irishman per se.12 This use of epithets that proclaim ethnic identities leads us to the names of gentes themselves. Put simply, a name gives expression to a gens. Membership of the gens might be defined by other characteristics, such as language and shared history, but the gens must also have a name that communicates its existence. A name gives a group its homogeneity.13 Thus, the shared experience of the English is expressed through their grouping as Angelcynn.14 This is an act of construction, of course, and the appearance of homogeneity deceiving: not everyone included under the umbrella Angelcynn as defined by a specific writer would have recognised that label as relevant to their own situation.15 Nor do such names account for the fluctuation in identities. In other words, the meaning of a name might change while the name itself remains fixed.16 This is particularly problematic when attempting to understand different expressions of Welsh identity. The meaning and scope of Britannia and Brit(t) ones certainly fluctuated, but this fluctuation does not leave its mark on the names themselves, only the context in which they are used.

It is unlikely that these epithets were devised by Nennius himself. See discussion in Chapter 2 (80–1). 8 See below, 80–1. 9 Suppe, ‘“Irish” Welshmen’, 90. 10 Thornton, ‘Who Was Rhain the Irishman?’, 142. 11 ByT (RB) [1022]; Brev. [b1043.1] (ed. Gough-Cooper, 47). 12 David Thornton suggests that the epithet was given to Rhain because he had some connection to Ireland, and perhaps it was intended to be derogatory: ‘Who Was Rhain the Irishman?’, 142. Cf. Seán Duffy’s argument that Rhain might be the same person as Roen/Roin, a challenger for the kingship of Mide after the death of Máel Sechnaill in 1022 (the same year in which ‘Rhain the Irishman’ appears in the Welsh annals): Duffy, ‘Ostmen, Irish and Welsh’, 383. 13 The importance of names to identity construction is neatly summarised by R. R. Davies: ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland….II’, 3. 14 The construction of English identity during Alfred’s reign, which included increasing use of the name Angelcynn, is discussed in Foot, ‘The Making of Angelcynn’. See also below, 150–1. 15 Cf. Sarah Foot’s comments on the likely extent of the reach of the English identity constructed under Alfred: ‘The Making of Angelcynn’, 36–7. 16 R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland…II’, 5. 7


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

As a strategy of distinction, names frequently go hand in hand with the association of a gens with a particular territory, normally the territory that they occupy. With the caveat that a people are not always linked to a specific territory, Rees Davies observed that the idea of a homeland – whether real or mythical – played an important role in the construction of medieval ethnic group identities.17 Ireland provides an illustrative example. On his death, the Irish annals describe the ninth-century king of Tara, Máel Sechnaill, as ‘king of all Ireland’ (ri hÉrenn uile).18 Máire Herbert argued that this represented a re-definition of Irish identity. Where previous expressions of Irish identity pinpointed genealogy or language as commonalities, it was their status as the inhabitants of the island of Ireland that was key to the identity of Máel Sechnaill’s followers.19 It is important to heed Davies’s warning that the connection between gens and territory was not universal; indeed, here we also see the existence of other expressions of Irish identity that were not linked to the island. But territory was important to one such expression.20 There is also a significant political dimension here. Máel Sechnaill is described as ‘king of all Ireland’; the identity constructed is not purely territorial, but rather also assumes a single kingship of Ireland.21 Such a political dimension was not unusual. Susan Reynolds highlighted the increasing importance of ‘regnal solidarity’ to the construction of ethnic identities in many regions in western Europe, arguing that in the centuries after 900 kingdoms and peoples became identical – a people were the inhabitants of a specific kingdom, their regnal solidarity acting as a strategy of distinction in their definition as a people.22 The importance of this relationship has been stressed in the context of the early middle ages too. Regna and gentes were closely linked, the latter associated with the former, and kings playing a crucial role in their construction.23 These debates will be discussed in further detail below, but it is immediately apparent that early medieval Welsh identity did not play by the same rules. Most notably, there is no single kingdom of Wales, or a Welsh dynasty that can be held responsible for the construction of Welsh identity. Attention has been drawn to Wales’s exceptionalism, although its case is not entirely unparalleled.24 In particular, Chris Wickham has observed interesting parallels with the construction of Armenian identity: here too the construction of an ethnic identity for the gens was not Ibid., 10. Wadden, ‘Theories of National Identity’, 92–3. 19 Herbert, ‘Rí Érenn, Rí Alban’, 64. On the expressions of Irish identity focused on language and descent see also Charles-Edwards, ‘The Making of Nations’, 29–33. 20 There is some debate over the timing of this development. Herbert focuses on the reign of Máel Sechnaill, but Patrick Wadden argues that the development of an Irish identity focused on the island of Ireland was already underway in the seventh century and was deliberately cultivated by Armagh for their own political benefit: ‘Theories of National Identity’, 83–96. Significant also in this context is Liam Breatnach’s discussion of the Senchas Már, dating the text to the seventh century and highlighting its preoccupation with a law for all Ireland: Breatnach, The Early Irish Law Text Senchas Már, 37–42. 21 This idea was evident already in the efforts of the Uí Néíll to present the king of Tara as the king of Ireland: Charles-Edwards, Early Christian Ireland, 481–8; Wadden, ‘Theories of National Identity’, 77–82. On Máel Sechnaill’s efforts to substantiate this claim, see Downham, Medieval Ireland, 95. 22 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, 260–1. 23 See, for example, Goetz et al., Regna and Gentes. 24 Reynolds, Kingdoms and Communities, 273. 17 18


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

accompanied by any long-lasting political unity.25 A united kingdom of Armenia only existed for twenty-three years, and Armenian identity was based on language and religion rather than political unity.26 There is also something to be said about its political situation, broadly comparable to that of the Welsh kingdoms. The kingdoms of Armenia were surrounded by powerful neighbours – Byzantium and the Abbasid Caliphate, to whom they owed taxes. But it was conflict between its own kingdoms and dynasties that barred the path to political unity.27 Clearly, such broad comparison can only take us so far – the payment of taxes to an overlord and inter-dynastic conflict was hardly unusual in the early middle ages. Nevertheless, the process of identity construction in both Wales and Armenia stands out for its failure to conform to the wider trend of equating the gens with a regnum. Comparison with Armenia is helpful in highlighting a way in which the case of Wales and the Welsh is more exceptional still. As noted above, a name can emphasise a connection to a particular territory. We have seen that expressions of Irish identity were increasingly linked to the island of Ireland in the ninth century. The Welsh, referred to as Brit(t)ones in the Latin sources of this period, are also connected to a territory – Britannia. But what is unusual about this association is that the contemporary Britons only occupied a small part of this territory. This chapter begins by focusing on this association with Britain, before proceeding to consider the role of the territorial unit of Wales to the construction of Welsh identity. Finally, I will examine the construction of identities based on specific kingdoms, dwelling in particular on the relationship between regna and gentes.

Brittania and the Britons Although its original title is unknown, Historia Brittonum is indisputably a history of the Britons.28 This gens is consistently labelled Brittones, the original inhabitants of the island of Britain, Brittania.29 The origin legend crafted for Britons, and its significance in establishing their historical superiority over their neighbours, will be Wickham, ‘Conclusions’, 551. Wickham also includes Ireland in this parallel. However, it is not clear that this comparison works so well: there were certainly aspirations of rulership over Ireland and an important political dimension to the construction of Irish identity. See discussion above, 23; Wadden, ‘Theories of National Identity’, 70–96. On the connection between the construction of Irish identity and the political aspirations of the Uí Néill, see Charles-Edwards, ‘The Making of Nations’, 29–32. 26 L. Jones, ‘Truth and Lies’, 223–5. 27 Ibid., 225. 28 The text is variously titled – sometimes not at all – in the different manuscripts. The title Historia Brittonum does occur in an eleventh-century French manuscript, for discussion see Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 414–17. 29 From antiquity, the island of Britain and its inhabitants had several different names. For the inhabitants, the Britons, the earliest Latin form is Britanni, later Brittanni, Brittani, and Brittones. Brittones is the most common form in Cambro-Latin texts (including those discussed here). Forms with initial b- and a double -tt- gave Welsh Brython (as in Armes Prydein). The island of Britain was referred to as Britannia by the Romans (the land of the Britanni). In Welsh, Ynys Prydein was unambiguously the island of Britain. However, Pryden or Prydyn were used of Pictland or the Picts, and the similarity of these forms to Prydein led to some confusion. As a result, we occasionally find Prydein for Pictland in texts, and Pryden/Prydyn for Britain. For a more detailed discussion of the names given to Britain and the Britons, see O’Rahilly, Early Irish History, 444–52; Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 280–2. On the confusion 25


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

discussed in Chapters 3 and 4. It is the names used and the territories with which they are associated that interest us here. Britain itself is depicted as a single distinct territorial unit in Historia Brittonum, eight hundred miles in length and two hundred miles in width, and home to four gentes: the Irish, Picts, Saxons, and Britons.30 Britain also has three islands and, according to an ‘ancient proverb’ (proverbio antiquo), it is said that judges and kings ‘judicavit Brittanniam cum tribus insulis’ (‘ruled Britain with its three islands’).31 This unique statement aside, Historia Brittonum’s description of Britain takes its cue from the works of Gildas and Bede.32 Patrick Sims-Williams has also observed Gildas’s tendency to treat the island of Britain as a distinct whole, even when reporting events that impacted solely on certain regions.33 In Historia Brittonum’s case, the land of the Britons is also a single political unit: when Julius Caesar conquered Britain, he held both the regnum and the gens.34 A series of rulers are similarly presented as kings over the entirety of Britain. The first of these is Lucius, the Brittannicus rex who received baptism with ‘omnibus regulis totius Brittannicae gentis’ (‘all the sub-kings of the entire British people’).35 Gwrtheyrn is said to be reigning in Brittania after the end of Roman rule and is later described as holding the imperium of Brittania.36 Throughout the narrative, Gwrtheyrn’s kingdom is presented as equal to the territory occupied by the Britons; he promises, for example, to grant the Saxons whatever they desire, be it even half of his regnum. They subsequently request and receive the regionem of Kent, even though Gwyrangon was ruling there.37 In both cases, then, there is a single king of the Britons with implied authority over sub-kings. This view of Britain as a unified entity ruled by a succession of monarchs was commonplace in medieval Welsh texts.38 The political unity of Britain was frequently emphasised, as in the second branch of the Mabinogi, where Bendigeidfran is described as ‘urenhin coronawc ar yr ynys hon’ (‘crowned king over this island’), having been invested with the crown of London.39 The same preoccupation is evident in texts dealing with historical individuals, such as a poem in praise of Cadwallon (king of Gwynedd, ob. 634), which alludes to its subject as ruler of Britain.40 Indeed, Thomas Charles-Edwards has suggested that this idea of an overking of Britain can be traced back to Bede’s description of Edwin as holding sway over all peoples and between Prydein and Pryden/Prydyn, see Broun, Scottish Independence, 81–3. On this confusion in Armes Prydein specifically, see below, n. 75. 30 HB (Harl.), §7 (ed. Faral, III. 7). 31 HB (Harl.), §8 (ed. Faral, III. 7). On the significance of this statement see below, 30. 32 Gildas, DEB, §3 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 16–17, 89–90); Bede, HE, i.1 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 14–17). 33 Sims-Williams, ‘Gildas and the Anglo-Saxons’; Sims-Williams, ‘Some Functions’, 115. 34 HB (Harl.), §20 (ed. Faral, III. 17). 35 HB (Harl.), §22 (ed. Faral, III. 19). For discussion of this account of the conversion of the Britons to Christianity see below, 107. 36 HB (Harl.), §§31, 66 (ed. Faral, III. 23, 44). 37 HB (Harl.), §37 (ed. Faral, III. 29). 38 Sims-Williams, ‘Some Functions’; B. F. Roberts, ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and Welsh Historical Tradition’, 33; R. R. Davies, The First English Empire, 40–1. 39 Branwen uerch Lyr, lines 1–2 (ed. D. S. Thomson, 1; transl. S. Davies, 22). 40 Moliant Cadwallon, lines 29–30, 38–9 (ed. Gruffydd, 29–30, discussion on 28). There is also an edition and translation in Koch, Cunedda, 188–94. For discussion of a series of other examples see B. F. Roberts, ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and Welsh Historical Tradition’, 32.


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

kingdoms of the island.41 Another recurring motif was the depiction of Britain’s history as a series of successive gormesoedd or invasions.42 Historia Brittonum, again under the influence of Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae, tracks the efforts of consecutive antagonists – the Picts and Irish, Romans, and Saxons – to overcome the Britons.43 Sims-Williams points to Armes Prydein as evidence of the importance of this scheme, not simply for interpreting the past, but also for shaping the future: in the poet’s prophesied future, the gormes of the English will be overcome.44 The construction of this version of the past – and future in Armes Prydein’s case – will be discussed further in Chapters 3 and 4. The important point here is that Historia Brittonum is unambiguous, and far from unusual, in its treatment of the Britons of the past as inhabitants of a single regnum. Gwrtheyrn’s Brittania, however, did not encompass the entire island. After the arrival of the Britons in Britain, Nennius tells us that the Picts devastated and occupied many regions in the northern part of the island, taking ‘tertiam partem Brittaniae’ (‘a third part of Britain’) which they hold to this day.45 Irish settlement in Britain is treated a little differently. Nennius explains that they occupied many regions: Dál Riata, the Isle of Man ‘et alias circiter’ (‘and others around there’), and territory in Dyfed, Gŵyr, and Cydweli in south Wales.46 They were subsequently expelled by Cunedda from all British regions. An additional dimension to this tale is provided in §62. Here, Nennius states that Maelgwn was reigning among the Britons, that is in the kingdom of Gwynedd, because his ancestor, Cunedda, had come with his eight sons from Manaw Gododdin to expel the Irish ‘ab istis regionibus’ (‘from those regions’).47 This tale occurs in many different guises and, although Historia Brittonum is our first witness, it was unlikely to have been invented by Nennius.48 Nevertheless, it was a tale that was adapted to reflect changing political circumstances. This has been clearly demonstrated through study of the version included in the Harleian genealogies, which does not mention Irish settlement, but lists the sons of Cunedda by name and outlines the extent of their territory between the Dee and the Teifi.49 Ben Guy has recently argued that this version was developed to suit the interests of the Merfynion during the reign of Rhodri Mawr.50 Its presentation in Historia Brittonum was likely no less partisan. To reiterate Thomas Charles-Edwards’s warning, this tale Bede, HE, iii.6 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 230–1); Charles-Edwards, ‘The Date of the Four Branches’, 290. Charles-Edwards also here links the focus on London as the seat of kings of Britain in texts such as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s De gestis Britonum with its status as an important city in Roman Britain. For discussion of London during the Roman period see Naismith, Citadel of the Saxons, 25–34. 42 A detailed discussion of this trope (including an examination of possible reasons for its prominence in Welsh texts) can be found in Sims-Williams, ‘Some Functions’. 43 Sims-Williams, ‘Some Functions’, 115. 44 Ibid., 112–13. 45 HB (Harl.), §12 (ed. Faral, III. 11). 46 HB (Harl.), §14 (ed. Faral, III. 13). Note that ‘alias’ is Faral’s emendation of the manuscript’s ‘in alis’. 47 HB (Harl.), §62 (ed. Faral, III. 42). 48 Charles-Edwards, ‘Dynastic Succession’, 72; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 181; Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 74. 49 A comparison of the different versions can be found in Charles-Edwards, ‘Language and Society’, 707–9. 50 Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 72–9. 41


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

was not invented as propaganda for the Merfynion.51 Nevertheless, certain elements that suited their purposes were likely emphasised and/or developed. Both Cunedda and Merfyn, for example, were from Manaw, albeit the former from Manaw Gododdin, the latter the Isle of Man.52 This particular aspect of the tale may very well have originated during Merfyn’s reign, perhaps in Historia Brittonum itself.53 There is an additional intriguing connection to Merfyn’s Manaw in the tale as presented in Historia Brittonum. In both §14 and §62, the sphere of Cunedda’s activities is ambiguous. In the first instance he expelled the Irish ab omnibus Brittannicis regionibus (§14), and subsequently ab istis regionibus (§62). ‘All British regions’ is most easily understood as a reference to the regions listed in §14 as having been settled by the sons of Liáthan – Dyfed, Gŵyr, Cydweli – with the possibility that Nennius also had Gwynedd in mind, although unmentioned until §62.54 Gwynedd is the only territory named in §62, but the claim that Cunedda expelled the Irish from ‘those regions’ implies that Nennius either perceived Gwynedd as a kingdom of multiple regiones, or had other places in mind too, perhaps the south Welsh regions of §14.55 It may be, however, that Nennius also wished to include the Isle of Man, which he claims was settled by Builc and his men. The political context to Historia Brittonum’s composition is important here. Nennius composed his history during the reign of Merfyn Frych, and we have already seen that one element of the Cunedda legend may have been developed to reflect favourably upon this ruler of Gwynedd. Thomas Charles-Edwards has suggested that, as well as being from Man, Merfyn (and his son Rhodri) may have continued to rule both Gwynedd and Man in the ninth century.56 Although there was likely significant Irish settlement on the island during this period, Nennius may have viewed Man as a territory of the Britons, to be included in ab omnibus Brittannicis regionibus.57 Indeed, Builc and his men not only settled in Man but also alias circiter (‘others around there’). We might speculate that Anglesey was one of the other islands thought to have been occupied by the Irish. The parallel would then not simply be between Cunedda’s Manaw Gododdin and Merfyn’s Manaw, but the former’s activities would also have linked the history of the latter’s two kingdoms. There is no other evidence of this beyond Historia Brittonum itself: the genealogies do not connect Cunedda with the Isle of Man, and Merfyn himself is only related to Cunedda through his mother.58 Indeed, Ben Guy has suggested that the Harleian genealogies in fact follow Irish pseudo-history in tracing the pedigree of the kings of Man to Nemed son of Agnoman/Agnon, the Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 181. Sims-Williams, ‘Historical Need’, 17; Miller, ‘The Foundation-Legend’, 517. For discussion of the location of Manaw Gododdin, see below, 29. 53 Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 74. 54 Thomas Charles-Edwards observes that Cunedda’s activities in §14 were largely focused on the south-west: ‘Language and Society’, 707–8. 55 Thomas Charles-Edwards suggests that regions such as Rhos, Mon, and Arfon might have been considered distinct regiones, although also draws attention to the presentation of Gwynedd as a single region (regione Guenedotae) in the same section of Historia Brittonum: ‘Language and Society’, 708, n. 24. Cf. comments in Wales and the Britons, 180–1 which appear to favour the interpretation that ab istis regionibus refers to the territories mentioned in §14 (Dyfed, Gŵyr, Cydweli). 56 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 472. 57 For discussion of the evidence for Irish influence on Man see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 472. 58 Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 72. 51 52


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

ancestors of the Fir Bolg. These would be the people of Builc, whose settlement in Man is noted in Historia Brittonum.59 The Harleian genealogies head off in the opposite direction, then. Nevertheless, it is an interesting possibility that in Historia Brittonum Cunedda’s activities were perceived as extending beyond Wales itself. The key point here, however, is that Gwrtheyrn’s regnum did not cover the third of the island that had been seized by the Picts (and later the Irish). As observed by Brynley Roberts, such an understanding of Britannia might owe a debt to perceptions of the territorial extent of Roman Britain.60 This definition of the Britain of the Britons is echoed in Armes Prydein. The core members of the proposed coalition are the Kymry, the specific meaning of which will be discussed further below, but the poet proceeds to list other participants: the Cornishmen, Cumbrians, Bretons, Hiberno-Scandinavians, Irish and perhaps also the Scots.61 The distinction drawn by Thomas Charles-Edwards between the Britons and their ‘associates’ is helpful for understanding the poet’s attitude towards these gentes and their place in Britain.62 We can see this distinction at work in the description of the territory that will be possessed after the expulsion of the English: Dysgogan derwydon meint a deruyd. o Vynaw hyt Lydaw yn eu llaw yt vyd. o Dyuet hyt Danet wy bieiuyd. o Wawl hyt Weryt hyt eu hebyr.63 Wise men foretell all that will happen: From Manaw to Brittany will be in their hands. They will possess from Dyfed to Thanet. From the Wall to the Forth, along their estuaries.

The first four locations denote the four points of the compass: from Manaw to Brittany (north to south), from Dyfed to Thanet (west to east). The next line is ambiguous but may describe north Britain. Gweryt is a reference to the river Forth, but the interpretation of this line hinges on our understanding of Gwawl (‘the Wall’).64 It may be that Hadrian’s Wall is intended, with the poet working northwards, referring to the territory stretching from the wall up to the border with the Scots, encompassing the current and former kingdoms of the Britons, in other words, the ‘Old North’.65 In Historia Brittonum, Guaul is the name used for the wall constructed between the Britons and the Picts and Irish, apparently the Antonine Wall.66 If this was also Ibid., 238–9. B. F. Roberts, ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and Welsh Historical Tradition’, 32. See also D. G. Jones, Gwlad y Brutiau, 24–5; Broun, Scottish Independence, 95, n. 74. On the extent and organisation of Roman Britain see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 31–2. 61 On the poet’s identification of the Scots see below, n. 75. 62 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 529. 63 APV, lines 171–4 (ed. Williams, 6). 64 Gweryt is first identified as the river Forth in the twelfth century: Howlett, ‘Structure of De Situ Albanie’, 135, 38. See also Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 8. 65 This was the interpretation favoured by Ifor Williams: Armes Prydein, 61, n. 174. This is also the implication of the interpretation in Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 535. Cf. GPC, s.v. gwawl²; Lloyd-Jones, Geirfa Barddoniaeth Gynnar Gymraeg, s.v. Gwawl¹. 66 HB (Harl.), §23 (ed. Faral, III. 19). Guaul is also referred to in §38: here, Gwrtheyrn grants the Saxons the territory in the north juxta murum qui vocatur Guaul (‘near the wall which is called 59 60


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

Armes Prydein’s understanding, o Wawl hyt Weryt might delimit the border with the Scots in the north. Considering the construction o…hyt… this interpretation would make the most sense if Gweryt was understood to be the Firth of Forth; the poet would thus be working eastwards.67 A reference to the Firth of Forth as Meirin Iddew in Y Gododdin muddies the waters somewhat, but it is not implausible that this is what the poet had in mind.68 Alternatively, Gweryt can be taken as the Forth, with the second part of the line hyt eu hebyr referring to the Firth of Forth and the other estuaries along this strip. An additional piece of evidence in favour of interpreting o Wawl hyt Weryt as a reference to the northern border occurs in the genealogies, which name Gwawl as a woman related to Cunedda (his wife or mother) and Coel Hen (his daughter).69 As already discussed, Historia Brittonum places Cunedda’s origins in Manaw Gododdin, a name that claims Manaw as a region within the territory of the Gododdin, although in reality it may have been contested land.70 Manaw itself was a region around Stirling and Falkirk, but likely also included territory north of the Forth that might have belonged to the Britons or the Picts.71 Considering the location of Manaw Gododdin near the Antonine Wall it may be that the development of Gwawl as a female figure related to Cunedda in the genealogies is linked to this geographical context. If so, this would provide additional evidence that Gwawl was understood as the Antonine Wall.72 These geographical markers may be ambiguous, but the poet is nevertheless consistent in excluding Alba.73 The northern boundary of the land of the Britons is Manaw in one instance, the Forth and (probably) the Antonine Wall in another.74 This supports Charles-Edwards’s view of a distinction between the different parties Gwawl’). The Saxons proceeded to gain land beyond the obscure mare frenessicum, up to the boundary with the Picts. Mare frenessicum is perhaps a reference to the Firth of Forth (as suggested in Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 208, n. 5). In support of this interpretation is its glossing in the Nennian recension as quod inter nos Scotosque est (‘which is between us and the Scots’): Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 139, f.170v. Cf. Breeze, ‘Where was Historia Brittonum’s Mare Frenessicum?’. 67 As assumed by Rachel Bromwich: Williams and Bromwich, Armes Prydein, 66, n. 174. 68 Canu Aneirin, line 1209 (ed. Williams, 48; transl. Jackson, 108 (B27)). For discussion of this identification, see Jackson, The Gododdin, 6; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 8. The implication is that a distinction was drawn between the Forth (Gweryt) and the Firth of Forth (Meirin Iddew). 69 Jesus College 20 (no. 7) (ed. Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 341); the ‘Llywelyn ab Iorwerth genealogies’, 27.2 (ed. Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 370). I am grateful to Ben Guy for calling my attention to this material. 70 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 6. Jackson proposes that Gododdin is a qualifier to distinguish between this northern Manaw and the Isle of Man, also called Manaw in Welsh texts: The Gododdin, 71. Thomas Clancy links this reference to a specific context in which an area of Manaw had fallen under the sway of English rule from Lothian: ‘The Kingdoms of the North’, 160–1. 71 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 5–6; Clancy, ‘The Kingdoms of the North’, 160. 72 Andrew Breeze has also drawn attention to the name Gwawl fab Clud given to a northern figure in the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Considering the component Clud (‘Clyde’), Gwawl is presumably here too a reference to the Antonine Wall: Breeze, ‘Where was Historia Brittonum’s Mare Frenessicum?’, 135. 73 As observed by Thomas Charles-Edwards: Wales and the Britons, 3. Cf. Wadden, ‘British Identity in Late Antiquity’. I use Alba as this was the tenth-century term for this territory, see Woolf, From Pictland, 125–6, 322–4. 74 There is some inconsistency in that Manaw, as noted above, may have extended to the north of the Forth. The poet would not necessarily have been aware of this, however.


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

involved in the coalition; the inhabitants of the northernmost part of Britain are a separate party.75 They will come to the aid of the Britons but will not partake in the territorial divisions of the island after the expulsion of the English.76 The Forth continued to represent the southern boundary of the kingdom of Alba in texts from medieval Scotland for centuries after this ceased to be a political reality, as in De situ Albaniae, for example, composed at some point in the second half of the twelfth century or the early thirteenth century.77 Indeed, in a number of later medieval maps the territory beyond the Forth is depicted as a separate island.78 This idea can be traced back to Bede, who describes ‘sinus maris permaximus, qui antiquitus gentem Brettonum a Pictis secernebat’.79 Historia Brittonum and Armes Prydein’s presentation of the kingdom of the Britons – both past and future – as reaching the doorstep of the Scots but going no further is echoed in later Welsh texts outlining the kingdoms and gentes of Britain. As discussed above, Britain was frequently depicted as a single monarchy. A further prevalent motif was the three islands of Britain. This was likely ultimately influenced by Historia Brittonum’s statement (§8) that Britain had three islands (the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, and Orkney), but was subsequently developed to refer to Britain itself as three islands. Thus, in Culhwch ac Olwen: ‘teir ynys Prydein a’e Their Rac Ynys’.80 Thomas Jones has illustrated that in such a context ynys can mean ‘kingdom’ – ‘the three kingdoms of Britain and their three adjacent islands’.81 The idea of Britain as divided into three kingdoms was popularised by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who envisaged the division of Brutus’s Britain between his three sons – Locrinus (to rule England), Camber (to rule Wales), and Albanactus (to rule Scotland).82 That the Picts occupied a third of the island had, as we have seen, already been established by Nennius. A version of Enwau Ynys Prydein in Peniarth 50, a tract that occurs alongside the text of the Welsh triads in a number of manuscripts, follows Geoffrey in referring to ‘Teir Ynys Prydein: Lloegyr a Chymry

The group is mentioned as participants in the ambiguous line Gwydyl Iwerdon Mon a Phrydyn (line 10, ed Williams, 1). There is significant confusion between Prydyn (‘Pictland’/ ‘Picts’) and Prydein (‘Britain’) in the poem. On two occasions it seems that Prydyn is used for Prydein: APV, lines 67, 105 (ed. Williams, 3, 4). If this is the case here, Gwydyl…Prydyn could be a reference to ‘the Irish of Britain’ rather than ‘the Irish of Pictland’. This is the interpretation favoured by Thomas Charles-Edwards, see Wales and the Britons, 527, n. 128. Prydyn could also be interpreted as simply a reference to ‘the Picts’ or ‘Pictland’, bearing no relationship to Gwydyl. Either way, it seems likely that the poet is here referring to the inhabitants of north Britain. For discussion see Williams, Armes Prydein, 14, n. 10; Broun, Scottish Independence, 81–3. 76 This is presumably also the implication of the poet’s claim ‘atchwelwynt Wydyl ar eu hennyd’ (‘the Irish will return to their own’), APV, line 177 (ed. Williams, 6): the Irish will help the Britons but then return to their own land. This line is discussed further in Chapter 4, see below, 125–6. 77 Broun, Scottish Independence, 7–8, 53. 78 See the reference to Matthew Paris’s map of Britain in Broun, Scottish Independence, 54. For further discussion see Greenlee, ‘“Queen of All Islands”’, 73–4. 79 Bede, HE, i.1 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 20–1): ‘a very wide arm of the sea which originally divided the Britons from the Picts’. 80 Culhwch ac Olwen, line 282 (ed. Bromwich and Evans, 10, see discussion on 97, n. 282). 81 T. Jones, ‘Teir ynys Prydein a’e their rac ynys’, 268–9. Although note that in the case of Culhwch ac Olwen, Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans propose that teir ynys Prydein simply means Britain, see Culhwch ac Olwen, 98, n. 282. 82 Geoffrey of Monmouth, DGB, ii.23 (ed. and transl. Reeve and Wright, 30–1). 75


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

a’r Alban’. Interestingly there is also a reference to ‘coron a their taleith’ (‘a crown and three coronets’), which occurs in the version in the White Book of Rhydderch. The crown should be worn in London and the coronets in Penrhyn Rhionydd in the north, Aberffraw, and Cornwall.84 This division is echoed in the triads, which list ‘teir lleithicl6yth Ynys Prydein’ (‘the three tribal thrones of the Island of Britain’) as Mynyw (St Davids), Celliwig in Cornwall, and Pen Rhionydd in the north.85 The location of Pen Rhionydd is uncertain, although the qualifier yn y Gogled in both instances suggests one of the Brittonic kingdoms of northern Britain.86 Here then, as in the Armes Prydein, it is likely that Arthur’s kingdom does not cover the most northern ‘third’ of the island. There is a clear association between the Welsh and a broader territory in both Historia Brittonum and Armes Prydein Vawr. Nennius is unambiguous in referring to the Britons as a single gens who once inhabited the island of Britain from sea to sea. And in the early period of their history this single gens also occupied a single political unit – the regnum of Gwrtheyrn. In Armes Prydein the names used are more ambiguous – the meaning of Kymry will be discussed further below – but the territory that will be occupied by the Britons after the expulsion of the English is equivalent to their land prior to the arrival of the Saxons in Historia Brittonum. In neither case does this include the territory of the Picts/Scots. The importance of this territory for the construction of identity in Historia Brittonum is clear from the use of the name Brittones, the inhabitants of Britannia. Nevertheless, this Britain was somewhat more modest than the island that was originally inhabited by the Britons in its entirety. 83

Wales and the Welsh The first part of this chapter has spoken to an issue broached in the introduction; namely the anachronism of referring to the identities constructed in these texts as ‘Welsh’. ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ were not names used in these sources, and the gens that interested our authors was the Brit(t)ones, the rightful inhabitants of most of Brittannia. This identity remained important throughout the middle ages.87 Nevertheless, there is space at the table for a specifically Welsh identity, based on the geographical unit of Wales.88 Most notably, Huw Pryce has illustrated that Cambro-Latin writers of the twelfth century moved away from using Britannia and Brit(t)ones to describe Enweu Ynys Brydein yw hynn (ed. and transl. Bromwich, Trioedd, 246–7. For discussion, see c–civ). 84 Enweu Ynys Brydein yw hynn (ed. and transl. Bromwich, Trioedd, 246–7). Cf. the entry for 1240 in the Annals of Tewkesbury, which describes the submission of Dafydd ap Llywelyn to Henry III at Gloucester, where the former wore ‘a lesser diadem, which is called a “garlonde”, symbol of the principality of North Wales’ (diadema minus, quod dicitur garlonde, insigne principatus Northwalliae): Annals of Tewkesbury, s.a. 1240 (ed. Luard, I. 115). 85 Trioedd Ynys Prydein, §1 (ed. and transl. Bromwich, 1). 86 For discussion of possible locations see Bromwich, Trioedd, 4. Marged Haycock notes that y Gogledd was used to create an imagined past, a symbol of a Britain possessed by the Britons, see ‘Early Welsh Poets’, 11–13. 87 Pryce, ‘British or Welsh?’, 786–7. 88 For a discussion of the geographical makeup of Wales in the early Middle Ages, see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 14–21, discussion of the fluctuating frontier on 419–24. The Old English Dunsætan Agreement gives an insight into relations between the Welsh and the English 83


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

Wales and the Welsh, instead deploying the terms Wallia and Walenses.89 The development in the meaning of the vernacular equivalent, Cymry, is less clear cut, but by 1100 it had a range of meanings, including Wales and the Welsh, but was also used of the Britons more broadly.90 The detail of this argument was set out in the introduction, but the important point here is that by the twelfth century there is evidence of an understanding of a distinct gens, the Welsh, inhabiting the unit of Wales.91 As noted above, names create – as well as express – identities, and the impact of this shift ought not to be underestimated. Nevertheless, Pryce stresses that this is an adoption of a different nomenclature rather than the adoption of a wholesale different identity.92 In other words, the understanding of the Welsh as a group inhabiting the territorial unit of Wales, and thus separate to the other Brittonic speakers in Britain, did not suddenly emerge in the twelfth century. It is consequently worth considering whether there is any hint of this identity in these ninth- and tenth-century texts. It is well established that Asser uses Britannia to refer to Wales.93 The example most cited in this regard is his statement that Offa of Mercia built a dyke ‘inter Britanniam atque Merciam de mari usque ad mare’.94 There are other instances too where Asser is likely referring to Wales. He claims, for example, that ‘omnes regiones dexteralis Britanniae partis’ belonged to Alfred, before proceeding to describe the submission of the kings of Dyfed, Glywysing, and Gwent.95 Dexteralis Britanniae pars, then, is south Wales. This narrower understanding of Britannia is also evidenced by his treatment of other regions in Britain. Thus we are told that Alfred was accustomed to give alms to monasteries in Saxonia and Mercia, but also in other regions including ‘Britannia et Cornubia, Gallia, Armorica, Northanhymbris, et aliquando etiam in Hybernia’.96 Cornubia and Britannia are clearly distinct entities here.97 In other words, Cornubia lies outside Britannia; the latter, by implication, a reference to Wales. Yet, the pairing of Cornubia and Britannia with the conjunction et might be significant, suggesting that Asser viewed these distinct units as related.98 Britannia is also Britain in the Life of King Alfred. On occasion Asser uses the unambiguous Britanniae insula, but this is not consistently the case.99 Viking fleets in the border region. The text is translated and discussed in Charles-Edwards, ‘The Three Columns of Law’, 53–9. 89 Pryce, ‘British or Welsh?’, 780–4. 90 Ibid., 778–9. See below, 37. 91 See above, 6. 92 Pryce, ‘British or Welsh?’, 799. 93 Ibid., 777; Wade-Evans, Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae, vii; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 1. 94 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §14 (ed. Stevenson, 12; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 71): ‘between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea’. 95 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80 (ed. Stevenson, 66; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96): ‘all the districts of the southern part of Wales’. See also §§7, 79 (ed. Stevenson, 7, 63, 65; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 69, 93–4). 96 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §102 (ed. Stevenson, 89; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 107): ‘in Wales and Cornwall, Gaul, Brittany, Northumbria, and sometimes even in Ireland’. 97 For other references to Cornubia, see: Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§74, 81, 102 (ed. Stevenson, 55, 68, 89; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 89, 97, 107). 98 Comparable to the pairing of Saxonia et Mercia in the same section. 99 Asser, Life of King Alfred, dedication, §61 (ed. Stevenson, 1, 48; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 67, 86).


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

are said to have arrived in Britannia, Britain, for example.100 Asser uses Britannia to refer to both Britain and Wales, then, and is perhaps the earliest writer to do so. Historia Brittonum’s focus is primarily the island of Britain, and attempts to interpret certain examples of Britannia as references to Wales in this text are ultimately unconvincing. Arthur Wade-Evans proposes that the text’s preface used Brittannia in this way: gens Brittannie a reference to the Britons of Wales, insula Brittannie the island of Britain.101 Nennius states that the gens Brittannie had thrown away all knowledge of their past because the teachers of insula Brittannie had not committed anything to writing.102 The Britons of Wales need not be the subject here, however, especially as Nennius likely used material from northern Britain.103 Two ambiguous references to Brittannia in the account of the confrontation between Gwrtheyrn and Emrys have also been cited as possible candidates. In the first instance, Gwrtheyrn sends messengers throughout Brittannia to find a fatherless child, which Dumville interprets as a possible reference to Wales.104 Driving this reasoning perhaps is the geographical scope of the story: Gwrtheyrn is in Snowdonia, the child (Emrys) is found in Glywysing. In the second instance Gwrtheyrn grants his stronghold in Snowdonia to Emrys along with ‘omnibus regnis occidentalis plagae Brittanniae’.105 Dumville notes that it is unclear whether Brittannia refers to Britain or Wales.106 Brittannia is unlikely to mean Wales here, however: Gwrtheyrn’s kingdom is consistently depicted as stretching across most of – if not all – Britain.107 Asser is our earliest extant witness for the idea of Wales as a distinct territory. This Britannia is not a single political unit, however, as the account of the submission of different Welsh kings to Alfred in §80 testifies. This treatment of Britannia is in line with Asser’s presentation of other territories and their inhabitants in his biography. Asser makes frequent use of Saxonia (and Saxones), for example, and, in so doing, departs from his source, the Common Stock of the Old English AngloSaxon Chronicle. In one instance (§43) Asser uses Saxones where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the West Saxons, and in two instances (§§42 and 66) there is no equivalent to Saxones in the annals.108 Every instance of Saxonia (and the one other reference to Saxones) occurs in the sections of the biography that are not reliant on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In a number of cases Saxonia is juxtaposed to another unit – Mercia, Britannia, Cornubia – and it is likely that Asser is referring not to a specific political kingdom, but rather to the land of the Saxons more broadly. Asser

Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§21, 66 (ed. Stevenson, 19, 50; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 74, 86). See also the claim that the river Exe ran between Gaul and Britannia in §49 (ed. Stevenson, 38; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 83). 101 Wade-Evans, Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae, vii, n. 4. The preface occurs in the later Nennian recension, see above, 9. 102 Text in Dumville, ‘“Nennius”’, 79–80. 103 See discussion below, 142. 104 HB (Harl.), §41 (ed. Faral, III. 31); Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 214, n. 1. 105 HB (Harl.), §42 (ed. Faral, III. 32): ‘all the kingdoms of the western region of Britain’. 106 Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 216, n. 1. 107 See above, 25. 108 Cf. ASC A 871: Westseaxe. Earlier in the same annal, there is a reference to nine battles being fought against the Danes in that year, whereas Asser refers to the near annihilation of the Saxones in these battles. The other entry that Asser adapts to include a reference to the Saxons is 885. 100


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

states, for example, that he agreed to split his time between Britannia and Saxonia.109 These two units are here clearly juxtaposed, and the distinction is not between two political kingdoms, but between the territories of two different gentes, the Britones and the Saxones. Not every example can be interpreted in this way. Thus, Asser refers to Saxonia on multiple occasions in his account of Æthelbald’s rebellion against Æthelwulf, noting that the nobles of ‘totius Saxoniae’ (‘the whole of the Saxon land’) refused to participate, and that Æthelwulf subsequently agreed to the division of his kingdom to avoid danger to Saxonia.110 In these instances Saxonia is likely a reference to the kingdom of the West Saxons. Nevertheless, Asser’s use of Saxonia largely echoes his treatment of Britannia. These are the territories of distinct gentes. Britannia can be distinguished from Saxonia based on the identity of its occupants. So too Cornubia, as in Asser’s statement that Alfred gave him Exeter ‘cum omni parochia, quae ad se pertinebat, in Saxonia et in Cornubia’.111 Asser may clearly be using Britannia to mean Wales in certain instances, but references to the inhabitants of this area are more ambiguous. Asser’s Britones need not refer exclusively to the Britons of Britannia in that sense; perhaps the inhabitants of other Brittonic-speaking regions, such as Cornubia, are also intended.112 But there is one example where Asser refers to the mediterraneos Britones (‘the inland Welsh/Britons’): Anno Dominicae Incarnationis DCCCLIII, nativitatis autem Ælfredi regis quinto, Burgred, Merciorum rex, per nuncios deprecatus est Æthelwulfum, Occidentalium Saxonum regem, ut ei auxilium conferret, quo mediterraneos Britones, qui inter Merciam et mare occidentale habitant, dominio suo subdere potuisset, qui contra eum immodice reluctabantur. Nec segnius Æthelwulfus rex, legatione eius accepta, exercitum movens, Britanniam cum Burghredo rege adiit, statimque ut ingreditur, gentem illam devastans, dominio Burgredi subdit. In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 853 (the fifth of King Alfred’s life), Burgred, king of the Mercians, sent messengers to Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons, asking him for help, so that he could subject to his authority the inland Welsh, who live between Mercia and the western sea and who were struggling against him excessively. As soon as King Æthelwulf had received his embassy, he assembled an army and went with King Burgred to Wales, where immediately on entry he devastated that race and reduced it to Burgred’s authority.113

This account is a Latin translation (with some elaboration) of the annal for 853 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Asser, Life of King Alfred, §79 (ed. Stevenson, 63–5; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 93–4). Saxonia is also used earlier in the same section of the biography, likely with a similar meaning. Asser states that he came ‘de occiduis et ultimis Britanniae finibus ad Saxoniam’ (‘from the remote, westernmost parts of Britannia to Saxonia’). In this instance, however, the meaning of Britannia – whether Britain or Wales – is not so clear. Other similar examples of Saxonia include §§81, 102. 110 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §12 (ed. Stevenson, 10; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 70). See also §§13, 15. For discussion of what this division of Saxonia constituted, see below, 165. 111 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §81 (ed. Stevenson, 68; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 97): ‘with all the jurisdiction pertaining to it in Saxon territory and in Cornwall’. 112 Instances of such ambiguous use of Britones include: Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§1, 76. 113 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §7 (ed. Stevenson, 6–7; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 69). 109


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms Her bæd Burhred Myrcna cing 7 his witan Aþelwulf cing þæt he him gefultomode þæt he him Norðwealas gehyrsumude. He þa swa dide 7 mid fyrde for ofer Myrce on Norðwealas 7 he him ealle gehyrsume gedyde. In this year Burgred, king of the Mercians, and his council asked King Æthelwulf to help him to bring the Welsh under subjection to him. He then did so and went with his army across Mercia against the Welsh, and made them all submissive to him.114

Asser uses mediterraneos Britones as an alternative to Norðwealas, the term used in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to describe the Welsh of Wales. Norðwealas is a compound formed from the Old English noun norð (‘north’) and wealas (singular wealh), the latter a label first used for the Britons in the seventh-century laws of Ine.115 Norðwealas is used for the first time in the annal for 828, noting that the West Saxon king Ecgberht led an army among the Welsh.116 There is no other evidence for this campaign, and so we cannot be absolutely certain that this is a reference to the Welsh of Wales. However, it is likely that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is distinguishing between the Welsh and the Cornish, the latter targets of an earlier campaign by Ecgberht in 813 and referred to as Westwealas.117 These entries mark a shift in the vocabulary of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: previous references were simply to the Britons (Brettas) or Welsh (Wealas). This tendency towards greater specificity in the annals covering ninth-century events evolves further from 875 to include references to Stræcled Wealas (‘Strathclyde Welsh’).118 As observed by Charles Insley, the Chronicle is not wholly consistent: Hywel, king of Westwealas, whose presence is recorded at the council of Eamont in 927 is likely Hywel of Dyfed. Pointing to a similar confusion over the use of Westwealas in a late-tenth-century letter attributed to Dunstan, Insley notes that the English of the ninth and tenth centuries had difficulty in differentiating between the Britons of Wales and the Britons of the south-west.119 It seems likely, nevertheless, that this instance of Norðwealas is intended as a reference to the Welsh of Wales. Was this also Asser’s understanding of mediterraneos Britones, those who lived between Mercia and the sea? In this account of Burgred’s conflict with the Welsh Asser does adapt one instance of Norðwealas in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry to refer instead to a territory, Britannia, likely meaning Wales. Mediterraneos Britones is conventionally translated as ‘inland Britons’, although Asser does proceed to note that they lived between Mercia and ‘the western sea’ (mare occidentale).120 This qualifier is a point in favour of interpreting mediterraneos Britones as a reference to the Welsh of Wales: elsewhere in ASC C 854 [=853] (ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, 56; transl. Whitelock et al., 43). The account in MS A is the same, except for the final clause: ‘7 hie him alle gehiersume dydon’ (‘and they made them all submissive to him’): ASC A 853 (ed. Bately, 44–5; transl. Whitelock et al., 43). 115 The term wealh would evolve to mean ‘slave’ by the tenth century, as evidenced by its usage in VI Æthelstan, and was also used as a synonym for ‘foreign’, as in compounds such as wealh-hnutu ‘foreign nut’ or ‘walnut’: Faull, ‘The Semantic Development’, Cf. Woolf, ‘British Ethnogenesis’, 25. 116 ASC A 828 [=830]. 117 ASC A 813 [= 815]. 118 ASC A 875. For discussion of Stræcled Wealas see Edmonds, ‘The Emergence’, 200–1. 119 Insley, ‘Kings and Lords’, 12. For the reference to Hywel king of the Westwealas, see ASC D 926 [=927]. 120 See the translation in Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 69. Cf. DMLBS, s.v. mediterraneus (1). 114


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

the biography Wales, Britannia, is defined as the land to the east of a dyke built by a Mercian king. Whatever the historical reality, there would be some consistency between this definition of Britannia and the identification of its inhabitants as the Britons living between Mercia and the sea. Mediterraneos Britones does not occur elsewhere, but mediterraneus is used as part of the name for the Middle Angles, as in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica.121 If Asser is similarly referring to the ‘midland Britons’, we might instead understand this as a reference to the location of these Britons in relation to the other groups of Britons inhabiting Britain. In other words, Asser could be referring to the Britons located between the Britons of Cornwall and the Britons of Strathclyde (whom he refers to as Strathcluttenses in §47) – the Britons of Wales. Alternatively, as Asser elsewhere refers to ‘dexteralis Britanniae partis’ (‘the regions of the southern part of Wales’), mediterraneos Britones could be those situated between the southern Welsh of Dyfed and Glywysing and the northern Welsh of Gwynedd, namely the inhabitants of Powys and Ceredigion.122 There are several possible interpretations of mediterraneos Britones, then, but the consistency between this definition of the gens and the earlier definition of Britannia does remain a point in favour of the Welsh of Wales. Asser’s Britannia (i.e. Wales) is not a political unit, but rather a territory inhabited by a gens, the Britones, who are distinct from their neighbours, the Saxones of Saxonia. Although Asser distinguishes between this Britannia and Cornubia, there is no indication that he viewed the inhabitants of the latter as a separate gens. They are simply Britones in the biography.123 The names used in Armes Prydein are similarly ambiguous. Here, a distinction is certainly drawn between the different groups of Brittonic speakers in Britain (and Brittany), but this distinction is inconsistent. Certain participants in the proposed coalition are singled out in the first awdl of the poem: A chymot Kymry a gwyr Dulyn. Gwydyl Iwerdon Mon a Phrydyn. Cornyw a Chludwys eu kynnwys genhyn.124 A reconciliation between the Welsh and the men of Dublin. The Irish of Ireland, Anglesey and Pictland/the Picts.125 The inhabitants of Cornwall and Strathclyde included among us.

The most likely interpretation of these lines is that the Kymry are here the Welsh of Wales, the ‘us’ among whom the Cornyw and Cludwys will be included.126 It does not necessarily follow, however, that Kymry is used in this way consistently throughout the poem.

Bede, HE, iii.21 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 278–9): ‘Middilengli, id est Mediterranei Angli’ (‘the Middle Angles, that is the Angles of the Midlands’). See also, DMLBS, s.v. mediterraneus (2b). 122 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80 (ed. Stevenson, 66; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96). 123 Cf. Asser’s treatment of the Cumbrians, labelled Strathcluttenses (§47). 124 APV, lines 9–11 (ed. Williams, 1). See also the reference to a force coming from Brittany in line 153. For discussion of the meaning of cymod in this context see below, 127. 125 On the interpretation of Prydyn, see above, n. 75. 126 Charles-Edwards, ‘Language and Society’, 712–13. 121


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

Etymologically, Kymry simply means people from the same bro (‘region’).127 Armes Prydein is the first securely dated source to include Kymry although it is probable that the name was in use before the tenth century. There are multiple references to Kymry in a poem in praise of Cadwallon of Gwynedd (ob. 634), a poem some have suggested may be dated to Cadwallon’s lifetime.128 Cormac’s Glossary also refers to the language as Combrec (Modern Welsh Cymraeg), likely borrowed into Irish by the seventh century.129 Its meaning remains controversial, however. Huw Pryce notes that by 1100 Kymry was consistently being used to refer to the inhabitants of a territory roughly equating to modern-day Wales, pointing to such usage in the eleventh-century poem Mawl Hywel ap Goronwy and the prose tale Culhwch ac Olwen, dated to the eleventh or twelfth century.130 This is the earliest unambiguous evidence of Kymry being used in this way. In the context of Armes Prydein, Thomas Charles-Edwards argues that Kymry and Brython are used ‘without distinction’: the leaders of the Kymry are Cadwaladr of Gwynedd and Cynan of Brittany, and the poet refers both to the land of the Kymry and the land of the Brython.131 In lines 9–11 of the poem (quoted above), Kymry likely refers to the Welsh of Wales specifically, but Charles-Edwards also stresses the significance of the statement that the Cornyw and Cludwys will be ‘included among us’ (eu kynnwys genhyn). In the thirteenth-century laws, cynnwys is used as a term for providing a distant kinsman with inheritance. In Charles Edwards’s view, the implication here is that the kin of the Welsh, the Cornyw and Cludwys, are being provided with their territorial inheritance in Britain.132 They themselves are also Kymry. The treatment of the inhabitants of Strathclyde is interesting in this context. By the tenth century, references to the kingdom, kings, and inhabitants of Strathclyde were being superseded by ‘Cumbrian’ terminology: sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle increasingly refer to Cumbria and the Cumbrians.133 Fiona Edmonds has convincingly linked this shift in nomenclature to the movement of the kingdom’s political centre away from the Clyde valley, stressing too that the new nomenclature was likely based on the self-identification of the Cumbrians themselves. In other words, the inhabitants of the kingdom of Strathclyde described themselves Koch, Celtic Culture, II, 532; GPC, s.v. Cymry. Patrick Wadden has recently suggested that Kymry may have held a similar meaning to, and been used alongside, Latin cives, denoting members of the same community: ‘British Identity in Late Antiquity’. I am grateful to Dr Wadden for sharing this article with me ahead of its publication. 128 Gruffydd, ‘Canu Cadwallon’, 27–8; Koch, Cunedda, 186–7. Cf. Dumville, ‘Early Welsh Poetry’, 15, n. 72. The dating of the poem to Cadwallon’s lifetime is based in large part on its failure to mention Cadwallon’s conquest of Northumbria in 633. However, the poem depicts Cadwallon as a defender of the Kymry, rather than aggressor against the Northumbrians, and consequently there is no reason why we should expect the conquest of Northumbria to feature. There is also the possibility that this poem contains a reference to Kymry in the territorial sense, that is, the land rather than the people, but this depends on the interpretation of ambiguous lines. Compare Gruffydd, ‘Canu Cadwallon’, 32–3 (lines 12, 28, 40, 51, 54, 55) and Koch, Cunedda, 189–92 (lines 12, 28, 40, i, ii, iii). 129 Charles-Edwards, ‘Language and Society’, 710 and n. 34. 130 Pryce, ‘British or Welsh?’, 779. On the date of Culhwch ac Olwen see Rodway, Dating Medieval Welsh Literature, 169–70. 131 Charles-Edwards, ‘Language and Society’, 712 and n. 45. On the identity of these two leaders see above, 17, n. 90. 132 Charles-Edwards, ‘Language and Society’, 712. 133 ASC A 945; Edmonds, ‘The Emergence’, 203–7. 127


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

as Kymry, a self-identification that was of some antiquity as the name had likely been borrowed into English as Cumbras by the seventh century.134 Interestingly, Welsh sources, such as the Harleian Chronicle, buck this trend and continue to use Clyde-based terminology.135 Edmonds suggests that the reason for this may be the unwillingness of the Welsh to use Kymry to refer exclusively to a single kingdom in north Britain. The Welsh themselves were Kymry and referring to the kingdom of Strathclyde in this way could have caused some confusion.136 In this context, Armes Prydein evidences not simply an understanding of a distinction between these kingdoms, but also between the inhabitants – the Cornyw and Cludwys can be separated from the Kymry. However, in the case of Armes Prydein, it is the elasticity of Kymry that Charles-Edwards stresses: it can refer to the Welsh of Wales but also the Britons more broadly. As already discussed, there are two layers to the poet’s proposed coalition: the Britons and other gentes who will come to their aid.137 The territory that will be possessed after the expulsion of the English does not encompass the entirety of the Britain, but rather leaves the land of the Scots untouched. This does not constitute evidence that the poet uses Kymry to refer to the Britons, however. The poet does not specify that it is the Kymry who will possess the territory outlined in these lines: the subject is indicated through use of the third plural independent pronoun wy and the third plural possessive pronoun eu. The subject of specific lines is frequently ambiguous, with references to lluyd (‘hosts’, lines 110, 120, 163, and 169), bydinoed (‘armies’, line 81), gwyr (‘warriors’, lines 5 and 7), as well as use of third-person verbs with no named subject (lines 1, 13, 20, 25, and 113). Indeed, in the opening line the poet states that ‘they will hasten’ (dygobryssyn) without specifying a subject. It may be Cynan and Cadwaladr who will hasten, as suggested by Ifor Williams, but other alternatives include the Britons, or even the broader coalition, many members of which are mentioned by name in the following lines.138 There is a similar ambiguity surrounding the poet’s description of the territory that will be possessed by the victors after the expulsion of the English: the triumphant party is clearly the Britons, but they are not explicitly labelled Kymry here. Kymry are referred to on fifteen occasions in the poem (including one instance of singular Kymro), but there are also three instances of Brython.139 In each case the use of Brython supplies internal rhyme (with atporyon in line 12, Saesson in lines 42 and 90), which might go some way towards explaining its use in these contexts. Having said that, not every instance of Saesson in the poem provides internal rhyme and, indeed, Saesson is used in the same line as Kymry on one occasion (line 54). The use of Brython is consequently a choice that is unlikely to have been driven by rhyme alone. The first example occurs following the introduction of the proposed coalition in the opening awdl. Three lines (12–14) are quoted here, untranslated in the first instance, as Brython cannot be interpreted solely in the context of its own line:

Edmonds, ‘The Emergence’, 202; Charles-Edwards, ‘Language and Society’, 713, n. 15; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 530. 135 HC [946]. 136 Edmonds, ‘The Emergence’, 205. See also Woolf, ‘Reporting Scotland’, 231. 137 See above, 28–30. 138 Williams, Armes Prydein, 8–9, n. 1. 139 Kymry: APV, lines 9, 22, 44, 46, 54, 61, 77, 83, 97, 125, 127, 141, 178, 185, 192. Brython: APV lines 12, 42, 90. 134


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms Atporyon uyd Brython pan dyorfyn Pell dygoganher amser dybydyn Teyrned a bonhed eu gorescyn.140

The second part of line 12 (pan dyorfyn) can be translated ‘when they prevail’, although a question mark must remain over the identity of ‘they’ for the moment. The first part of the line is of greater difficulty. Ifor Williams notes that atporyon, being the plural of attpaur, means ‘remnants’ or ‘fragments’, giving the translation ‘the Britons will be fragments when they prevail’.141 However, Idris Foster’s suggestion that, since paur means ‘pasture’ or ‘grass’, attpaur could be interpreted as ‘new pasture’, makes more sense in the context of the poem. Thus, literally, the Britons will be ‘new pasture’, in other words ‘renewed’: ‘the Britons will be renewed when they prevail’.142 As this line directly follows the poet’s claim that the Cornyw and Cludwys will be ‘included among us’, Brython has been understood as encompassing these parties, as well as the Welsh.143 The next line (‘pell dygoganher amser dybydyn’) can be translated as ‘far and wide it is/it will be prophesied the time when they will come’.144 It is unclear whether the meaning of this line is carried over to the following line (‘teyrned a bonhed eu gorescyn’), in other words that line 14 proceeds to explain who it is that will come.145 Ifor Williams notes that the verb ‘to conquer’ does not fit the meaning of gorescyn here, and that it should instead be interpreted as a noun meaning ‘possession’ or ‘seizure of possession’.146 As there is no example of bonhed being used as a noun to mean ‘nobles’ in this period, Williams prefers the meaning ‘(noble) descent’.147 He offers several possible interpretations of a bonhed, his preferred option being to pair bonhed with eu goresgyn, with a presumably understood as the conjunction ‘and’.148 Thus, Rachel Bromwich’s translation: ‘as rulers whose possession is by (the right of descent)’.149 However, an alternative interpretation would understand a as functioning in the manner of later Welsh o, denoting the relationship between an adjective and a noun qualified by the adjective: ‘the possession-taking of princes of noble descent’.150 Under both interpretations, the implication is that in the poet’s APV, lines 12–14 (ed. Williams, 1). Williams, Armes Prydein, 15, n. 12. 142 Rachel Bromwich includes and follows Foster’s suggestion: Williams and Bromwich, Armes Prydein, 22, n. 12; GPC, s.v. atborion; s.v. pawr¹. 143 Pryce, ‘British or Welsh?’, 779, n. 22. 144 I reject Rachel Bromwich’s emendation of dygoganher to dygoganhet to provide the past tense (Williams and Bromwich, Armes Prydein, 23, n. 13). For discussion see Callander and Thomas, ‘Amser yn Armes Prydein’. 145 Williams, Armes Prydein, 15–16, n. 14. 146 Ibid., 16, n. 14; GPC, s.v. goresgyn¹. However, this use of gorescyn is not confined to south Wales as suggested by Williams. Cf. for example, its use in Llyfr Iorwerth §71/1 (ed. Wiliam, 43). 147 Williams, Armes Prydein, 15–16, n. 14. The first attestation in GPC is in the work of the fourteenth-century poet Gruffudd Gryg: s.v. bonedd (b). 148 Williams, Armes Prydein, 15–16, n. 14. 149 APV, line 14 (ed. and transl. Williams and Bromwich, 2–3). 150 GPC, s.v. a⁴. Ifor Williams does not favour this option as it requires an emendation of bonhed to vonhed to reflect the expected lenition: Armes Prydein, 16, n. 14. However, the text does not always show lenition: see, for example, heb talet (line 104, ed. Williams, 4). Cf. GPC, s.v. heb¹. A third interpretation would be to emend abonhed to anvonhed (‘(people) of bad descent’) and interpret the line as someone will come ‘to conquer dishonourable princes’ i.e. the Saxons. 140 141


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

prophesied future teyrned will come to take possession of land that is rightfully theirs, chiming well with the poet’s consistent focus on the illegality of English settlement in Britain. This raises the question of the identity of the teyrned, and whether it is their prevailing that will lead to the renewal of the Brython in line 12. Williams favours Cynan and Cadwaladr, ‘their possession’ being Britain, which is theirs by descent due to the perceived status of the Britons as the first inhabitants of the island.151 This is a possibility, although Cynan and Cadwaladr are not mentioned by name until lines 89 and 81 respectively, and it may be that this is a reference to the rulers of the Britons more generally. Even if the teyrned are Cynan and Cadwaladr, it does not follow that they must also be the subject of the verb dyorfyn (‘they will prevail’) in line 12. As this line immediately follows the list of the various parties of the coalition, the subject could simply be the coalition at large: when the coalition prevails, the Britons will rise again. What light does this shed on the use of Brython? It may be that this is an allusion to the Britons of the past, the Britons who occupied the island before the arrival of the English. This would chime well with the reference to gwyr gogled in the same awdl (line 15) as being granted a place of honour in the force: these are the heroes of the ‘Old North’, coming to aid the coalition from the distant past. The location of the reference to the Brython, immediately following the reference to the Cornyw and Cludwys, may also be offering a contrast between the Britons of old who occupied the entirety of the island, and the fragmented parties of the prophesied coalition. The treatment of the past, present, and future in the poem is, however, more fluid than this, as the second example of Brython illustrates: Gwrthottit trindawt dyrnawt a bwyller. y dilein gwlat Vrython a Saesson yn anhed. poet kynt eu reges yn alltuded. no mynet Kymry yn diffroed.152 May the Trinity reject the blow that is intended to destroy the land of the Britons, and the English in occupation. May their retreat into exile be sooner than the Kymry to be without land.

Following a series of references to the initial settlement of the English in Britain, the poet slips from the past to the present/future with the use of pwyller, a present subjunctive form that could bear a future meaning.153 Referring to gwlat Vrython in this context makes sense: the land that will be destroyed and occupied by the English is not simply that belonging to the Welsh in the tenth century, but the historic territory of the Britons. The subsequent description of the Kymry as diffroed (‘without land’) could be a more specific reference to the Welsh, but there is no reason to favour this interpretation over others. The poet frequently slips between past, present, and future, a practice that is particularly apparent in this second awdl: the English are described as an teyrned (‘our princes’) in line 40, but this is connected to their past However, as well as emending the text, this interpretation would necessitate a change of subject between the eu of line 14 and the eu of line 15. 151 Williams, Armes Prydein, 15–16, n. 14. 152 APV, lines 41–4 (ed. Williams, 2). 153 For discussion, see Callander and Thomas, ‘Amser yn Armes Prydein’, 4.


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

actions described in the previous lines (31–4) through the label kechmyn Danet. Crucially, the English of the past, present, and future, are one and the same. This is also true of the Kymry: to the poet’s mind the Kymry of the present are the same people whose original occupation of Britain was disturbed by the English. A simple distinction between the Brython of the past and the Kymry of the present/future is consequently unlikely. The final instance of Brython occurs when Cynan and Cadwaladr are introduced for the first time: Canhwyll yn tywyll a gerd genhyn. Kynan yn racwan ym pop discyn. Saesson rac Brython gwae a genyn, Katwaladyr yn baladyr gan y unbyn.154 A candle in the darkness goes with us, Cynan leading in every attack. The English will sing lamentations before the Britons. Cadwaladr will be a shaft of defence with his lords.

There are three references to Cynan, and four references to Cadwaladr in the poem. One of these references is to a reconciliation or alliance between Cynan and y gilyd (‘his companion’), presumably Cadwaladr, followed by a reference to the English as Cadwaladr’s slaves.155 The line quoted above aside, Cynan and Cadwaladr are elsewhere named as a pair kadyr yn lluyd (‘strong in hosts’), and there is a further reference to bydinoed Katwaladyr (‘the armies of Cadwaladr’).156 It may be significant that this reference to Cadwaladr’s armies is followed, in the next line, by the phrase rydrychafwynt Kymry (‘let the Kymry attack’).157 In contrast, it is the Brython who are mentioned in the lines quoted above, where both Cynan and Cadwaladr are named. It may be that the poet is here distinguishing between Cadwaladr as a champion of the Welsh and Cynan as representing the Britons more broadly.158 The number of references to Cynan and Cadwaladr are too few, however, to establish any certain pattern. There is no discernible definitive pattern in the poet’s use of Brython. It may be that the poet distinguishes between the land of the Brython, that is Britain, and the land of the Kymry, that is Wales, but this remains only one possible interpretation of a handful of ambiguous lines. Similarly, Cadwaladr might be presented as leader of the Kymry, Cynan the leader of the Brython, but the evidence is too slight to be APV, lines 88–91 (ed. Williams, 3). APV, lines 182–4 (ed. Williams, 6). The meaning of cymod is ambiguous and has caused difficulties due to the possible implication of a prior quarrel between Cynan and Cadwaladr. David Dumville has suggested an alternative interpretation, namely that there will be ‘harmony’ or ‘concord’ among the Britons after their victory: ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein Vawr’, 156. Cymod can also mean ‘alliance’, which Thomas Charles-Edwards has suggested is its meaning in line 9 of the poem, describing the relationship between the Kymry and the Hiberno-Scandinavians: Wales and the Britons, 527; GPC, s.v. cymod. The meaning and significance of cymod in this line is discussed further in Chapter 4, 127. 156 APV, lines 163, 81 (ed. Williams, 6, 3). 157 APV, line 82 (ed. Williams, 3). 158 This interpretation is reliant upon the assumption that Cynan is Cynan of Brittany: Dumville, ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 155–8. Cf. Isaac, ‘Trawsganu’, 176. 154 155


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

sure. What is clear is that, although they are included as among ‘us’, Cornyw and Cludwys are also singled out as separate to the Kymry at the beginning of the poem. Nor is this distinction unusual. We have seen that Asser refers to Cornubia as distinct from Britannia and, drawing on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, refers also to the Strathcluttenses. It is certainly possible that in the use of Kymry the poet continues to refer to the Welsh specifically throughout the poem, especially considering the context. The payment of taxes to the reeves of Cirencester and battle across the river Wye are, after all, preoccupations for the Welsh of Wales. The poet refers to forces coming from Alclut (line 151) and Llydaw (line 153), and they could be among those referred to as Kymry kyneircheit (‘the supporters of the Kymry’) and llwyth lliaws gwlat (‘the people of many countries’) that the Kymry will assemble.159 Kymry could certainly refer to the Britons more broadly – indeed, we have seen that the adoption of Cumbrian nomenclature likely reflects the self-designation of the inhabitants of Strathclyde as such – but in Armes Prydein there are hints that this label was also used with a narrower focus.

Regna and Regiones It remains to consider the construction of identities focused on specific regions or kingdoms.160 Asser himself makes it clear that there is no single Welsh regnum: Britannia is a geographical unit, contrasted with Saxonia, and itself compromising several regna.161 The political dimension is important here. Studies of identity construction in the early middle ages have highlighted the close relationship between regna and gentes. A gens might have existed in some form prior to the existence of an associated regnum, but such gentes were politicised (and in some cases their form entirely changed) during the latter’s development.162 The centrality of kings to this process is stressed: origin legends, for example, associate the origins of a gens with the rule of a particular dynasty. Thus, Hans-Werner Goetz notes that kingship established the political unity of a regnum but was also crucially important for the cultivation of the ethnic identity of the gens.163 Barbara Yorke’s observations on the evidence of Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provide an illustrative example. As a rule, Bede associates each English kingdom (termed regnum or provincia) with a gens, and each gens with a royal dynasty. Thus, in his account of the conversion of the East Saxons in the seventh century, he refers to the Orientales Saxones as a gens and to Sigeberht as the ruler of both gens and regnum.164 Similarly, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the arrival of Cerdic and Cynric at Cerdicesora in 495, but the

APV, lines 77, 128 (ed. Williams, 3, 5). For discussion of regional identities in medieval Wales from the twelfth century onwards see E. R. Roberts, ‘A Surfeit of Identity?’, 270–6. 161 See above, 33–4. 162 Goetz, ‘Regna and Gentes: Conclusion’, 603–11. 163 Ibid., 623–4. 164 Bede, HE, iii.22 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 280–3); Yorke, ‘Anglo-Saxon Gentes and Regna’, 390–1. There are some exceptions, such as the case of Deira and Bernicia, where one gens (gens Nordanhymbrorum) was divided into two kingdoms: Bede, HE, iii.1 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 212–13). 159 160


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annal is duplicated under the year 514, and here it is the West Saxons who arrive at Cerdicesora. There is a clear equivalence here between rulers and their people.165 This relationship between regna and gentes is at the heart of Asser’s treatment of Alfred’s kingdom. The biography traces the emergence both of a new political order and a new gens, as Asser’s description of Alfred as Angulsaxonum rex (‘King of the Anglo-Saxons’) rather than the Occidentalium Saxonum rex (‘King of the West Saxons’) used of his predecessors testifies.166 This process, and Asser’s treatment of Alfred’s kingdom and its inhabitants, is discussed further in Chapter 5. In the case of the Welsh, §80 is key. After noting that ‘omnes regiones dexteralis Britanniae partis’ belonged to King Alfred, Asser proceeds to outline the submission of the kings of Dyfed and Brycheiniog (due to the force of the six sons of Rhodri) and the kings of Glywysing and Gwent (due to the Mercians).167 South Wales is very clearly divided into political units here, each linked to a specific named king. The implication is also that the submission of a king equated to the submission of a people, a point driven home by Asser’s statement that Hyfaidd ‘cum omnibus habitatoribus Demeticae regionis’ sought Alfred’s overlordship.168 A clear distinction is drawn between the inhabitants of these named kingdoms, linked to their different ruling dynasties. The degree of significance Asser placed on these regnal identities is debatable, however. His treatment of the rulers of the rest of Wales is illuminating in this context. Having driven the kings of Dyfed and Brycheiniog to submission, Asser proceeds to explain that Anarawd ap Rhodri himself eventually submitted to Alfred along with his brothers, on the same terms as Æthelred and the Mercians. Interestingly, Anarawd is not labelled rex, and nor is he or his brothers linked to a named regnum.169 It is unlikely that this is an attempt to undermine Anarawd’s status. He may not be labelled a king, but his submission to Alfred is the pinnacle of this section of the biography; Anarawd is the jewel in Alfred’s crown of sub-kings. Nor is it possible to blame Asser’s own south-Walian perspective: according to the biography, the threat of the Merfynion could be felt in south Wales, and Asser’s note on Anarawd’s alliance with the Northumbrians (also in §80) illustrates that he was well-informed about this north Welsh king. The most likely explanation is that, to Asser’s mind at least, the sons of Rhodri were the rulers of the rest of Britannia, every territory bar ‘omnes regiones dexteralis Britanniae partis’. The position of the Merfynion during the reign of Anarawd is not certain. Asser’s silence on Powys is likely explained by their takeover of this kingdom.170 The situation of the also unnamed Ceredigion is of greater ambiguity. Thomas Charles-Edwards suggests that the kingdom was in fact under the rule of Hyfaidd of Dyfed at this point and was only subsequently seized by the Merfynion after his death, and that of his sons in 903 and 904. Ceredigion was nevertheless on the radar of the Merfynion, attacked by Anarawd in 894, and it may be that the force of the six sons of Rhodri that drove Hyfaidd to submission to Alfred Yorke, ‘Anglo-Saxon Gentes and Regna’, 391. Asser, Life of King Alfred, Angulsaxonum rex: §§1, 13, 21, 64, 67, 71, 73, 83, 87; Occidentalium Saxonum rex: §§1, 7, 9, 14, 30, 68. 167 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80 (ed. Stevenson, 66; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96): ‘all the regions of the southern part of Wales’. On the identification of six sons of Rhodri, see Dumville, ‘The “Six” Sons’. 168 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80 (ed. Stevenson, 66; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96): ‘with all the inhabitants of the kingdom of Dyfed’. 169 Hyfaidd is not referred to as king here either, but he was given the title rex in the previous §79. 170 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 487; Dumville, ‘The “Six” Sons’, 15. 165 166


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was directed against this subject territory.171 Whatever the situation in Ceredigion, it seems likely that Asser’s treatment of the sons of Rhodri stems from their status, in his eyes at least, as rulers of the rest of Britannia.172 This has implications for the presentation of the relationship between regna and gentes in the Life of King Alfred. Britannia may not be a single political unit, may not be a regnum, but it is arguably this unit that remains most important to Asser in the definition of the identity of its inhabitants. Similarly, Asser may list the individual kingdoms of south Wales with their associated rulers, but they are still brought together as omnes regiones dexteralis Britanniae partis. This was also the case in Asser’s earlier reference to the mediterraneos Britones who lived between the Mercians and the western sea – whether these are the inhabitants of Powys, Ceredigion, or the entirety of Wales, it is their identity as Britons that is important. At this point it is productive to re-introduce Historia Brittonum, as Nennius deals much more extensively than Asser with the regna of the Britons and Welsh. As already discussed, Gwrtheyrn’s regnum is presented as stretching across Britain up to the border with the Picts in the north.173 But there are smaller units within this broader regnum too. Gwrtheyrn, for example, grants Hengist the kingdom (referred to as both regnum and regio) of Kent without the consent of Gwyrangon who was ruling there.174 Moving beyond Gwrtheyrn and the Saxons, the ‘Northern History’ is preoccupied with sixth- and seventh-century regna. There is something to be said about the labelling of these kingdoms, however. A clear pattern is evident in the Northumbrian regnal list: the name of the king followed by reign length. Thus, ‘Hussa regnavit annis VII’.175 Where material is added to this list, Mercia, Northumbria, and Kent are regna, and Nennius also simply refers to the kings of the inhabitants of these kingdoms (for example, Eowa rex Merciorum).176 In contrast, no smaller kingdom of the Britons is labelled a regnum, barring the example of Kent, which is passed over to the Saxons (§37). The status of the kings of these units is not diminished: they are reges and/or said to be regnans in the area. Thus, Maelgwn is magnus rex (‘great king’) and Ffernfael regit modo (‘reigns now’) in Buellt and Gwrtheyrnion.177 Nevertheless, Gwrtheyrn’s Britain is the only political unit of the Britons explicitly called a regnum. Most frequently these other kingdoms are labelled regiones: Ceredig, king of Elmet, is described as rex illius regionis (‘king of that region’), and Maelgwn is referred to as reigning in regione Guenedotae (‘in the

HC [894]; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 495; Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 71–2; Dumville, ‘The “Six” Sons’, 15‒18. 172 Although note Ben Guy’s proposition that the political situation of the Merfynion as presented by Asser was in fact a reflection of the situation during the lifetime of Rhodri Mawr (ob. 878), rather than that of his sons in 893: Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 71. 173 See above, 25–8. 174 HB (Harl.), §37 (ed. Faral, III. 29). 175 HB (Harl.), §63 (ed. Faral, III. 43): ‘Hussa reigned for seven years’. The only exception is Ida, who is said to have held ‘regiones in sinistrali parte Britanniae’ (‘regions in the northern part of Britain’): HB (Harl.), §61 (ed. Faral, III. 42). As this is the beginning of the Northumbrian regnal list it is likely an effort to set the stage for the kings that follow. 176 For Eowa see HB (Harl.), §65 (ed. Faral, III. 44). See also references to Anna rex Easteranglorum and Oswald rex Nordorum in the same section, as well as references to regnum Merciorum and regnum Nordorum. For a reference to regnum Cantiorum see HB (Harl.), §63 (ed. Faral, III. 43). 177 HB (Harl.), §§49, 62 (ed. Faral, III. 35, 42). 171


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

region of Gwynedd’). The Harleian Chronicle also occasionally refers to Welsh kingdoms as regiones, recording, for example an attack on demeticae regionis in 645 and the death of Elfoddw, archbishop guenedotae regione in 809.179 Bearing in mind that Asser too referred to Dyfed as a regio (§80), this is a recurring feature in these Cambro-Latin texts. An interesting contrast is provided by the Historia ecclesiastica, in which Bede uses regio to refer to smaller units within provinciae or regna. These regio are normally ruled by principes answerable to the rex of the kingdom.180 It is possible that the distinction between rēgnum and rĕgio has been obscured by the loss of vowel quantity in Late Latin and British; in other words, Nennius may not have distinguished between these terms.181 However, there is a pattern to the use of regnum and regio in Historia Brittonum, suggesting a deliberate choice. The implication may be that Gwrtheyrn’s regnum, the kingdom of the Britons encompassing the entirety of Britain up to the border with the Picts, is the important political unit. It is not simply how these regna/regiones are described that is important for understanding their role in identity construction. Much emphasis has been put on the place of kings in this framework. Barbara Yorke observes, for example, that Bede paired each kingdom not only with a gens, but also a ruling family. The specific identity of the ruling family might fluctuate, but Bede did not envisage the existence of a gens without one.182 Similarly, Hans-Werner Goetz observes that even before the establishment of post-Roman kingdoms, a gens was often linked to a king of sorts.183 In Historia Brittonum’s case too these regiones are most frequently presented as dynastic units connected to specific kings. This is not to say that a regio is only ever mentioned in the context of its dynasty; Gwrtheyrn’s men search in many regiones and provincae before finding the fatherless child Emrys in the regio that is called Glywysing, for example.184 Indeed, the final section of the text (§§67–75) is a substantial account of the location of marvels in various regiones. Nevertheless, regiones are frequently mentioned alongside their kings, including in several dynastic origin legends. Thus, the descendants of Cadell rule Powys to the present day (§32), and the status of Maelgwn king of Gwynedd is traced back to his ancestor Cunedda (§62). Gwrtheyrn himself fled ‘ad regionem quae a nomine suo accepit nomen Guorthigirniaun’ and Nennius subsequently provides the genealogy of his descendant and contemporary ruler of Gwrtheyrnion and Buellt, Ffernfael.185 In this instance, Gwrtheyrn’s descendants continue to rule the region to which he allegedly gave his name. Although these units are not labelled regna in Historia Brittonum, their political nature is undisputed. What is important in the context of identity construction, however, is the linking of each unit to a specific gens. Thus, Yorke notes that Bede paired 178

HB (Harl.), §§62, 63 (ed. Faral, III. 42–3). HC [645], [809]. See also [822]. Although the Harleian Chronicle and the ‘Northern History’ likely drew on a shared source, the references to Welsh regiones in this section of Historia Brittonum are not paralleled in the Harleian Chronicle, the entries of which are much briefer. For discussion of this shared source see below, 142. 180 Yorke, ‘Political and Ethnic Identity’; J. Campbell, Bede’s Reges and Principes. 181 Jackson, Language, 338–44. 182 Yorke, ‘Anglo-Saxon Gentes and Regna’, 390–1. See above, 42. 183 Goetz, ‘Regna and Gentes: Conclusion’, 623–4. 184 HB (Harl.), §41 (ed. Faral, III. 31). 185 HB (Harl.), §§47, 49 (ed. Faral, III. 34, 35): ‘to the region which received its name, Gwrtheyrnion, from his name’. 178 179


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each kingdom and ruling dynasty with a gens, envisaging too a broader gens Anglorum encompassing these smaller regna and their gentes.186 Did Nennius similarly view the inhabitants of his regiones as separate gentes? And, of greater importance in the context of identity construction, does the existence of such gentes matter in Historia Brittonum; do they trump the two larger groupings of Brittones and Saxones? In some ways this dichotomy between regna and gentes is a false one, as in many cases they share the same name. In Historia Brittonum, Mercia is regnum Merciorum (‘the kingdom of the Mercians’) and the kings of this territory are labelled rex Merciorum (‘king of the Mercians’). Occasionally, Nennius makes this connection more explicit by referring specifically to a gens. We are told, for example, that Weha was the first to reign super gentem Eastanglorum.187 Similarly, the names of several Welsh kingdoms are constructed through the addition of a suffix (-ing or -ion for example) to a personal name to designate ‘descendants of’ or ‘people of’. Thus, the kingdom Ceredigion is ‘the people of Ceredig’.188 We have already seen an example of this pattern in Historia Brittonum: the region of Gwrtheyrnion is so called for the ‘descendants/people of Gwrtheyrn’. In other cases, the name of the kingdom appears to have evolved from the name of the population group. Powys, for example, likely derives from pagenses ‘country people’.189 Similarly, it is probable that Gwynedd developed from the name of a population group, the Irish Féni.190 Dyfed also derives its name from a people, the Demetae, although later genealogies claim an eponymous ancestor, Dimet, for the kingdom’s dynasty.191 Regna and gentes might be linked by name, but in Historia Brittonum the inhabitants of these kingdoms are most frequently treated simply as Britons. Cadwaladr was reigning apud Brittones (‘among the Britons’) and it is reges Brittonum (‘kings of the Britons’) who fought alongside Penda at the battle of Campus Gai.192 These were kings of Gwynedd, and likely Powys too in the latter example, but the gens with which they are identified is the Brittones.193 Similarly, Maelgwn ‘apud Brittones regnabat, id est in regione Guenedotae’, because his ancestor, Cunedda, had come from Manaw Gododdin and expelled the Irish who had settled there.194 Clearly this origin legend establishes a connection between the Britons of Gwynedd and Manaw Gododdin.195 This connection is not exclusive, however. As discussed in the first section of this chapter, Nennius states that Cunedda expelled the Irish ab istis Yorke, ‘Anglo-Saxon Gentes and Renga’, 390–1; Goetz, ‘Regna and Gentes: Conclusion’, 627. HB (Harl.), §59 (ed. Faral, III. 40). 188 For discussion and list of examples see Richards, ‘Early Welsh Territorial Suffixes’. 189 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 14–15; Richards, ‘Early Welsh Territorial Suffixes’, 205. 190 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 178; Woolf, ‘Reporting Scotland’, 231; Richards, ‘Early Welsh Territorial Suffixes’, 205. On the form Guenedota used in Historia Brittonum, see Dumville, ‘Notes on Celtic Latin’, 285–6. Cf. Gwent, named after Venta Silurum (later Caerwent), the capital of the Silures: Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 17; Richards, ‘Early Welsh Territorial Suffixes’, 205. 191 Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 334 (§2). For discussion see Guy, ‘The Earliest Welsh Genealogies’, esp. 483–5. 192 HB (Harl.), §§64, 65 (ed. Faral, III. 43, 44). Cf. HC [682] which simply refers to Cadwaladr as son of Cadwallon. The battle of Campus Gai is discussed further in Chapter 4, 143. 193 Also significant in this context is the listing of poets famous in poemate Brittannico: HB (Harl.), §62 (ed. Faral, III. 42). 194 HB (Harl.), §62 (ed. Faral, III. 42): ‘reigned among the Britons, that is in the region of Gwynedd’. 195 For further discussion see R. Thomas, ‘Remembering the “Old North”’, 190–1. 186



Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

regionibus (‘from those regions’); Gwynedd certainly, but other regions too.196 These other regions are likely those listed in §14 as areas of Irish settlement prior to their expulsion by Cunedda, namely Dyfed, Gŵyr, and Cydweli, and perhaps also the Isle of Man. The inclusion of this origin legend thus places further emphasis on Gwynedd as a kingdom of the Britons. Historia Brittonum’s evidence does not sit altogether comfortably with broader conclusions about regna and gentes in the early middle ages. There are regna certainly, although they are not always labelled as such, and origin legends connect these kingdoms to specific ruling dynasties. It is the link with gentes that is not so clear. Each regnum has an associated gens – many kingdoms are named after their inhabitants. But this affiliation with a regnum is not so important to Nennius in the construction of identities. What is important instead is the identity of the inhabitants as Britons, linked to the broader regnum once held by Gwrtheyrn and Lucius. Of course, Historia Brittonum is not unique in presenting an overarching identity for a gens encompassing several smaller units; Bede conceived of multiple kingdoms with associated dynasties and gentes that nevertheless shared an identity as the gens Anglorum.197 Nennius, however, does not place much emphasis on identities linked to smaller units within this larger whole. Moreover, unlike most other gentes, the regnum with which the Brittones are associated no longer exists. In Bede’s case it is likely Christianity and the Church that he views as tying the gens Anglorum together.198 For Historia Brittonum, it is the status of the Brittones as the inhabitants of a long-lost regnum. The political makeup of this long-lost territory of the Britons is ambiguous in Armes Prydein. In other words, it is not clear that the poet conceived of a single regnum of the Britons.199 The poet does refer to certain Welsh kingdoms: Gwynedd, Dyfed, and Glywysing, are all mentioned. Gwynedd is a qualifier, added to the name of its ruler, Gwrtheyrn (‘kychmyn y Wrtheyrn Gwyned’).200 But it is in the reference to the kingdoms of south Wales that we see a clear association between regna and gentes. The poet calls on Dyfed and Glywysing to stand firm against the English threat – ‘na chrynet Dyfet na Glywyssyg’– clearly referring to the inhabitants of those regions.201 This follows an earlier reference to gwyr deheu (‘the men of the south’) fighting for their taxes.202 The identification of gwyr deheu of course depends very much on the poet’s own perspective: this could be a reference to the inhabitants of Britain south of the Forth, the inhabitants of Wales (as opposed to the northern See above, 26–8. Yorke, ‘Anglo-Saxon Gentes and Regna’, 390–1; Goetz, ‘Regna and Gentes: Conclusion’, 627. 198 Goetz, ‘Regna and Gentes: Conclusion’, 627. Nicholas Brooks refers to Bede’s idea of the English as ‘one people, with one language, one church and one faith’: ‘English Identity from Bede to the Millennium’, 35. Patrick Wormald traced the development of the idea of a single gens Anglorum to Gregory the Great, see ‘Bede, the Bretwaldas and the Origins of the Gens Anglorum’, 123–4. 199 The poet does refer to this territory as pennaeth (‘dominion’) in the final awdl (line 175). Gwrtheyrn, however, is referred to as Wrtheyrn Gwyned, suggesting his association with a narrower territory (line 27). 200 APV, line 27 (ed. Williams, 1): ‘the shit-men of Gwrtheyrn Gwynedd’, describing the Saxons. Gwrtheyrn is said to have fled to Gwynedd in Historia Brittonum (§40). 201 APV, line 99 (ed. Williams, 4): ‘may Dyfed and Glywysing not tremble’. Glywysing is an example of the pattern of personal name + suffix -ing to designate ‘descendants of’/‘people of’ discussed above, see Richards, ‘Early Welsh Territorial Suffixes’, 206. 202 APV, line 78 (ed. Williams, 3). 196 197


Map 1: Conflict and Flight in Armes Prydein

Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

Brittonic kingdoms), or the inhabitants of Cornwall. However, taken alongside the reference to Dyfed and Glywysing, gwyr deheu are most likely the men of south Wales. Like Asser, the poet recognises the existence of the regna of south Wales but also groups their inhabitants together as gwyr deheu. The poet’s interest in the inhabitants of south Wales provides an interesting additional perspective on the use of Kymry. Of the fifteen references to Kymry in the poem, nine describe confrontation between this gens and the English, conflict that is in fact fairly localised.203 The poet prophesies a battle at the unidentified Aber Perydon, where meiryon Kaer Geri (‘the reeves of Cirencester’) will be slaughtered, having come to collect taxes from the Kymry on behalf of the mechteyrn (‘Great King’).204 If the tax collectors had come from Cirencester then we would expect Aber Perydon to be located, or at least perceived to be located by the poet, somewhere in the south, perhaps on the border.205 This is supported by reference to a further meeting between the Kymry and English y am lan (‘on the bank’) in line 55, likely the river Wye, named in line 58.206 The poet also prophesies the English fleeing across the south, to Caer Wynt (Winchester, line 96), and their corpses stretching to the estuary of Sandwich (line 188). Caer Weir, to which the English will flee in line 7, has been interpreted as Durham.207 Marged Haycock has suggested, however, that Caer Weir could be connected with Ynys Weir (the Isle of Wight), or Durngueir, the Welsh name for Dorchester in Asser’s Life of King Alfred (§49).208 According to the poet, the English will also flee to a certain Ailego, which is yet to be clearly identified.209 A number of these place-names may be ambiguous, but there is nevertheless a clear focus on southern England. This may be a result of both the poet’s preoccupations and the contemporary political situation. In other words, the focus on Kent is driven by a fixation with certain past events; this was the first kingdom to be seized by the English, who are themselves named kechmyn Danet (‘the shitmen of Thanet’) APV, lines 22, 54, 61, 77, 83, 125, 127, 141, 178. The other references are: the Kymry listed as part of the coalition (line 9); the poet lamenting the lack of action of the Kymry (line 46) and the terrible fate it would be for them to be without land (line 44); the Kymry rejoicing at the departure of the Saxons (lines 97, 185, 192). 204 APV, lines 17–24, 69–86 (ed. Williams, 1, 3). Meiryon is sometimes translated as ‘stewards’ in the context of Armes Prydein, but Thomas Charles-Edwards makes the case that ‘reeves’ is more appropriate, see Wales and the Britons, 534, n. 162. 205 Ifor Williams suggests a possible association between Armes Prydein’s Aber Peryddon and an aper periron referred to as part of the description of the boundaries of ‘Llan Oronwy’ (Lann Guoronui) in the Book of Llandaf. Gwenogvryn Evans identified ‘Llan Oronwy’, plausibly in Williams’s view, with Rockfield in Monmouthshire: Williams, Armes Prydein, xxxi–xxxiv. Cf. Griffen, ‘Aber Perydon’. 206 APV, lines 55, 58 (ed. Williams, 2). 207 Williams, ‘Adolygiad’, 208. This also occurs in another poem in Llyfr Taliesin: Cunedaf, line 6 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Legendary Poems, 491‒502), and in Enwau ac Anryfeddodau Ynys Prydain, a text ultimately derived from the list of cities and marvels found in Historia Brittonum: Williams, ‘Enwau ac Anrhyfeddodau’. 208 Haycock, Legendary Poems, 495–6. Graham Isaac also suggested an association with Ynys Weir: ‘Armes Prydein Fawr’, 171, n. 1. Andrew Breeze in contrast argues that Caer Weir ought to be understood as a fortress in Caithness: ‘Durham, Caithness, and Armes Prydein’, 149–50. 209 APV, line 106 (ed. Williams, 4). A fleet is also said to have come o Lego (‘from Lego’) in line 149. For discussion see Williams, Armes Prydein, 44–5, n. 106. Andrew Breeze proposes Leicester, see ‘Durham, Caithness, and Armes Prydein’, 147. Graham Isaac suggests that Lego is an orthographical variant of Legio, which could be a name for one of the two places referred to as Caer Legion in Historia Brittonum (Caerleon or Chester): ‘Armes Prydein Fawr’, 165, n. 8. 203


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

in the poem. Meanwhile, Cirencester was likely the base for tax collecting operations, and Winchester had long been a site of administrative importance for the English.211 That the battles are prophesied to primarily occur in the south, then, is perhaps part of the narrative of the Britons taking the fight to the English. They are advancing into what is perceived to be key English territory. It nevertheless remains the case that the poet singles out the inhabitants of south Wales to a greater extent than any other region and, in some cases, the poet might be using Kymry to refer to this group. Kymry does clearly bear a wider meaning and is used to refer to the Welsh more broadly in the poem, but in certain instances it is possible that the poet is thinking specifically of the southern Welsh.212 There is some acknowledgement of regional identities in Armes Prydein, then. The coalition is divided into multiple gentes, and the Britons themselves are further subdivided – the Welsh, Cumbrians, Cornish, and Bretons certainly, but perhaps the south Welsh too. These groups are also occasionally linked to specific regna, most notably the south Welsh kingdoms of Dyfed and Glywysing, although these inhabitants are also still grouped together as gwyr deheu. Ultimately, even though there is a recognition of these smaller units, their importance lies in their status as part of a larger whole. As in Historia Brittonum, the primary territory of note is that occupied by the Britons of the past and, in Armes Prydein’s case, the Britons of the future too. 210

Conclusions I started this chapter with a comment on Asser’s name, a name that, drawn from the Old Testament, is part of a broader Brittonic Christian tradition. His name functions as an expression and construction of his own identity, placing him in this ecclesiastical and Brittonic context. Interestingly, Asser uses the third person to refer to the Welsh, presenting them as a people separate from himself. In the account of the campaign against the mediterraneos Britones, for example, he notes that Æthelwulf devastated gentem illam (‘that people’), and elsewhere he states that the Britones call the Saxons Geguuis.213 It is with St Davids that Asser associates himself. Recounting his own recruitment by Alfred, Asser refers twice to meorum (‘my people’) and also to riding ad patriam (‘home’). Asser goes on to explain that ‘our people’ (nostri) were hoping that through reaching an arrangement with Alfred, St Davids would be protected from the attacks of King Hyfaidd of Dyfed. His personal connection to St Davids is further reinforced by the reference to his kinsman (propinquum meum), archbishop Nobis.214 When Asser steps into his biography, it is his identity as a member of the community of St Davids that he deems important. The Life of King Alfred is nevertheless the first extant text to include a concrete reference to the territory of Wales. Wales and the Welsh are not designated as Wallia and Walenses until much later, but Asser occasionally uses Britannia to refer to Wales, a geographical unit he believes to be separated from Mercia by Offa’s Dyke. The presentation of the origin legend of the English in Armes Prydein is discussed further in Chapter 4, 129–40. 211 For discussion of Winchester, see Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, 309–10; Crook, ‘Winchester’. 212 Cf. Fulton, ‘Tenth-Century Wales’, 15. 213 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§1, 7 (ed. Stevenson, 2, 7; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 67, 69). 214 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §79 (ed. Stevenson, 64–6; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 94–6). 210


Names, Territories, and Kingdoms

Asser’s treatment of the inhabitants of this area is less clear, but the reference to mediterraneos Britones might be his way of distinguishing the Welsh from the other Brittonic speakers of Britain. It is surely significant that Asser is here translating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle into Latin. In this text there is already an attempt to distinguish between different groups of Brittonic speakers: the Welsh are Norðwealas, the Cornish Westwealas, the Britons of Strathclyde Stræcled Wealas. Asser’s categorisation of the Welsh, then, might be linked to evolving perceptions of the Britons in Wessex. It may also be significant that this biography was likely intended for readership in multiple regions: Wales, but also Wessex, and possibly even further afield.215 Huw Pryce’s comment in relation to the twelfth-century evidence ‘that identity is not simply a matter of self-perception; it is also a matter of how one is seen, and wishes to be seen, by others’ is certainly relevant here.216 Asser was not only holding up a mirror to his colleagues at St Davids, but also presenting Wales and the Welsh to the West Saxon court. The poet of Armes Prydein certainly also viewed the Welsh as a separate party to the Cornyw and Cludwys, but the ambiguity of the poem’s terminology makes it difficult to assess the significance of this identity. The poet is largely preoccupied with another identity, namely the identity of the Welsh, alongside the Cornyw, Cludwys, and Bretons as Britons, revealed through a focus on the broader territory that they will possess after the expulsion of the English from Britain. This view is evident in Historia Brittonum, and was commonplace across medieval Welsh texts. The Welsh were Britons, the rightful inhabitants of the island of Britain. Interestingly, however, the Britons are not presented as possessing the entire island in either Historia Brittonum or Armes Prydein. In both cases the territory belonging to the Scots was excluded. It is also clear that Nennius envisaged this sub-insular territory as once forming a single regnum of the Britons. The close relationship between regna and gentes, and the importance of regnal solidarities in constructing medieval identities, has been emphasised. However, in the case of the Britons, there is no single political unit attached to the gens, and identity construction cannot be linked to any single king or dynasty. Instead, the author of Historia Brittonum looks to the past, to the regnum of the Britons that extended across two thirds of the island. The preoccupation here is with historical and legendary territory and kingdoms. Asser stands out for his narrower focus. But this fixation on the island of Britain in our other texts does raise questions over the existence of a specifically Welsh identity, and the strategies used in its construction. Is it simply that, as identified by Asser, they occupy the territory beyond Offa’s Dyke? The names discussed here can only take us so far. Often vague and ambiguous, it is impossible to fully understand how they were deployed in our texts. Yet names do not work in isolation in constructing identities. Many strategies of distinction feed into the creation of a name, and the giving or adopting of a name in turn has an impact on these perceived differences between a group and others. Using the name Brit(t)ones thus both reflects and establishes a relationship between the Welsh and the other Brittonic-speaking peoples of the Insular world, linking them too to the island of Britain. But other strategies of distinction also contribute to the presentation of this relationship between the Welsh and the other Brittonic-speaking peoples of Britain, including shared origins, history, and language. These factors will be the subject of the next chapters.

See above, 15–16. Pryce, ‘British or Welsh?’, 795.

215 216



In the early eighth century, language was fundamental to the identity of the Irish as a single, unified people. So, at least, was the opinion of the author of Auraicept na n-Éces (‘the primer of the poets’) who claimed that the Irish language was invented at the school of the grammarian Fénius a few years after the division of the world into different languages at the Tower of Babel. The Irish, then, came to be a people through the creation of a shared language. Nor was this any ordinary language: the Irish language was not the result of divine punishment but was rather invented through combining the best elements of other languages. This shared language was the best language of all, and the Irish, by extension, the best people.1 This association between a people and their language was far from unique in the early middle ages. We see something similar in the Historia ecclesiastica, for example, where Bede links four of the five languages of Britain to specific gentes, the final language, Latin, being used by all.2 Such medieval texts clearly viewed linguistic difference as worthy of comment – a shared language could contribute to the definition of a gens and distinguish it from other gentes. But where was language located in the constellation of characteristics that might be drawn upon to construct group identities? Rees Davies did not deny that language was important, but also observed that medieval writers were more obviously preoccupied with other characteristics, such as shared history and law. And although linguistic difference is acknowledged in medieval texts, it is not often presented as a source of contention between peoples.3 In the context of early medieval Europe, the importance of language is in further doubt. Walter Pohl has dismissed language as an indicator of ethnic identity, arguing that most people were bilingual, and that medieval writers rarely commented upon language.4 This view is widespread among the proponents of the ethnogenesis model put forward by the Vienna school.5 The overarching consensus, then, is to caution against overestimating the importance of language to identity construction in the middle ages. By contrast, discussions focusing specifically on the Britons and the Welsh tell a different story. Alex Woolf, for example, argues that the transition from Roman to British identity was in essence a shift in language, from Latin to British, while Auraicept na n-Éces, lines 1034–1055 (ed. and transl. Calder, 78–81). See also Charles-Edwards, ‘The Context and Uses’, 76–7; Charles-Edwards, ‘The Making of Nations’, 32–3; Charles-Edwards, ‘Celtic Britain and Ireland’, 152–3; Russell, ‘“What Was Best of Every Language”’, 405–7; Wadden, ‘Theories of National Identity’, 64–5. Other origin legends of the Irish exist that are not focused on language, see above, 26–8, and below, 121–2. 2 Bede, HE, i.1 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 16–17). 3 R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland…IV’, 2–14. Cf. Guenée, States and Rulers, 52–4. 4 Pohl, ‘Telling the Difference’, 25; Pohl, ‘Introduction – Strategies of Identification’, 7. 5 See, for example, Geary, ‘Ethnic Identity’, 20; Goetz, ‘Gens, Kings and Kingdoms’, 314. 1


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

Catherine McKenna points to language as an important ‘signifier of nationality’ in this context.6 Such contributions, which bring the Welsh evidence into dialogue with theories of ethnogenesis, stand out for their focus on the importance of language. Indeed, examining how the label Cymry, meaning someone from the same bro (‘district’), came to be used of the Britons, Thomas Charles-Edwards argues that the identity of the Cymry was ‘largely linguistic and cultural’. In regions where Latin was not the principal language of the people, a contrast would have been drawn between the Latin language of the Roman empire and its trappings, and the Brittonic language spoken by the locals.7 Elsewhere, Charles-Edwards notes that the difference between their own language and that spoken by the English likely led to language becoming an even more important marker of identity for the Britons.8 The factors deemed important to the construction of identities on the Continent thus seem to sit uneasily with the conclusions drawn from evidence relating to the Britons and Welsh. In an Insular context, the importance of language should not be underestimated. Yet Walter Pohl’s statement that early medieval writers rarely commented on language is not necessarily contradicted by the Welsh evidence. Rather, it is how our writers use language that reveals its importance. We can see this clearly in the use of the words iaith (‘language’) and anghyfiaith (‘not of the same language’) in medieval Welsh texts. As noted by Thomas Charles-Edwards, iaith is used as a synonym for ‘people’ in a poem in the Book of Taliesin, where it is stated that the kings of every iaith (i.e. people) are subject to Urien of Rheged.9 Iaith, then, could refer to both a language and its speakers. Nor is this unique: there is a similar range of meanings attested for Latin lingua, and in Old English þeod was used for ‘people’ and geþeode for ‘language’.10 In a medieval Welsh context, anghyfiaith also occurs in a number of texts to identify those who are ‘not of the same language’.11 Thus, the Normans are anghyfiaith in the thirteenth-century Historia Gruffud vab Kenan, and a twelfth-century poem in praise of Owain ap Madog of Powys refers to its subject as an enemy of anghyfiaith.12 The use of anghyfiaith is particularly prevalent in texts dating from the twelfth century onwards, but there is one possibly earlier reference to the English as anghyfiaith in a prophecy in the Book of Taliesin, which may date from the tenth century.13 In these examples it is clear that language was a means of distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them’. 8 9 6 7

12 10 11


Woolf, ‘The Britons’, 373–80; McKenna, ‘Inventing Wales’, 148. Charles-Edwards, ‘Language and Society’, 710–15. Charles-Edwards, ‘The Making of Nations’, 24–9. Dadolwch Urien, line 15 (ed. Williams, Canu Taliesin, 11). Charles-Edwards, ‘The Making of Nations’, 26–8. See also Rodway, ‘Four Nations’; Ll. B. Smith, ‘Yr Iaith’, 179. This poem is one of the so-called ‘historical’ poems of Taliesin, the composition of which Ifor Williams located in sixth-century northern Britain (see Williams, Canu Taliesin, xvi–xvii, xxxix–xli). However, this date and provenance is uncertain and it may be that the poem was composed in Wales at a later date: Isaac, ‘Gweith Gwen Ystrat’; Dumville, ‘Early Welsh Poetry’. For other instances of this use of iaith, see GPC, s.v. iaith b. DMLBS, s.v. lingua 4b; Bosworth and Toller, Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, s.v. þeód; ge-þeóde. GPC, s.v. anghyfiaith. For further discussion, see R. Thomas, ‘Ystyr anghyfiaith’. Historia Gruffud vab Kenan (ed. Evans, 25, line 21); Arwyrain Owain ap Madog, line 13 (ed. Jones and Owen, Gwaith Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr I, 158). Rydyrchafwy Duw ar plwyff Brython, line 23 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 112–13, for discussion of the dating of the poem, see 110–11).



Our understanding of the role played by language in identity construction can clearly benefit from this approach. Instead of focusing attention on what medieval writers have to say about linguistic difference, the following discussion contends that it is more revealing to investigate how they themselves use language. Most early medieval Welsh texts are multilingual, providing the perfect opportunity to examine the interaction between different languages. What drove the prioritisation of one language over another at different points in a text, for example? This chapter will address these questions by examining how Asser and Nennius, both writing primarily in Latin, make use of vernacular languages, before proceeding to investigate the interaction between Welsh and English in Armes Prydein Vawr.

Asser’s Life of King Alfred According to his own testimony, Asser agreed to enter Alfred’s service on the condition that he would divide his time equally between Wessex and St Davids. The workability of such an arrangement was immediately called into question, as Asser spent eight months with the king in the first instance.14 If this account is to be believed, the Life of King Alfred is indisputably the work of an insider, an individual with intimate knowledge of the king and his court. However, this eyewitness account does, at times, disappoint. In particular, scholars have expressed surprise (and dismay) that Asser has little to say about the production of Old English texts at Alfred’s court.15 Asser does not mention, for example, the Old English translation of Gregory the Great’s Regula pastoralis, possibly composed as early as 890, even though he is listed as a contributor in this text’s preface.16 In the entirety of the Life of King Alfred there is only one specific reference to the production of an Old English text, namely the statement that Gregory’s Dialogi were translated by Werferth, bishop of Worcester, at the king’s command.17 It seems, then, that we cannot look to Asser to shine further light on the production of these texts, or to elucidate their relationship to the construction of English identity at Alfred’s court.18 Asser’s interest in the translation of Latin texts into Old English lies instead in how they serve as an illustration of Alfred’s own personal pursuit of learning. According to his biographer, a key element of Alfred’s character was his love of learning: as a child he lacked the necessary teachers but did his best nonetheless and, as an adult, he strove to surround himself with scholars.19 Nor was this aspect of the king’s Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§79, 81 (ed. Stevenson, 63–7; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 93–6). See, for example, Keynes, ‘Alfred the Great’, 30–1. 16 Regula pastoralis (ed. Sweet, 6–7; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 126). For discussion of the text’s date see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 35. 17 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §77 (ed. Stevenson, 62; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 92). 18 It has been suggested that the production of Old English texts formed part of an Alfredian project to construct a unified English identity for the Mercians and West Saxons under Alfred’s rulership: Foot, ‘The Making of Angelcynn’; Keynes, ‘Alfred the Great’, 34–5. Patrick Wormald argued that this idea came originally from Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica: ‘The Venerable Bede’. Cf. Molyneaux, ‘The Old English Bede’. For scholarship questioning the claim that Alfred himself was the translator, see Godden, ‘Did King Alfred Write Anything?’; Godden ‘The Alfredian Project’; Godden, ‘Stories’. This debate is considered in greater detail in Chapter 5: see below, 150. 19 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§22–5, 76–9 (ed. Stevenson, 19–22, 59–64; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 74–6, 92–3). 14 15


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

character purely personal in impact, as he apparently established a court school that aimed to cater for the educational needs of noble children.20 The translation of texts into Old English is mentioned in a more general sense here: Asser explains how he was with Alfred when the king learned to read Latin texts and began to translate these into Old English.21 The focus is upon Alfred’s own pursuit of wisdom. If there was a political agenda driving the production of Old English texts and the provision of education for noble children, it was not something that Asser was interested in discussing. Indeed, for Asser, the significance of Alfred’s preoccupation with learning may lie in the parallel with Charlemagne. Whilst Einhard notes Charlemagne’s insistence on the education of his own children, Asser’s Alfred goes a step further in establishing a court school for noble children.22 As the Vita Alcuini refers to Alcuin’s instruction of Charlemagne in the liberal arts, so does Asser highlight his own role in teaching Alfred to read.23 Asser’s discussion of the translation of Latin texts may have more to do with presenting Alfred as another Charlemagne (and, indeed, himself as another Alcuin) than with the construction of a linguistic English identity. Asser himself, of course, bucks the Alfredian trend of composing texts in Old English. With the Life of King Alfred he follows a different path from his peers at the West Saxon court, translating the Old English annals of the common stock of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle into Latin. There are multiple reasons why Asser may have chosen to compose his biography in Latin: the influence of the Latin Carolingian biographies can be felt throughout the work, and it may be that in choosing Latin he was following these models closely.24 It could be a sign of his own linguistic capabilities; as a scholar of St Davids the comforting familiarity of Latin may have held greater appeal than Old English. The use of Latin would also have enabled Asser to reach a wider audience, including readers in Wales. Choosing to compose a biography in Latin did not mean eschewing the vernacular entirely. The influence of Welsh is evident in the appearance of certain Cambro-Latin features in the text, such as the use of sinistralis for north and dextralis for south, which are carried over from vernacular usage of left and right to indicate these compass points.25 More often discussed is the inclusion of Welsh place- and river-names (eleven in total), which are frequently cited as key evidence in the case for an intended Welsh audience.26 However, the complexity of Asser’s provision of Welsh names has been underappreciated: not all the Welsh names in the text are treated in the same way, with some given only in Welsh, others in Welsh and English, and occasionally Asser also offers a Latin alternative. This inconsistency is crucial to understanding Asser’s treatment of these names and the reasons for their inclusion in the biography. Consequently, this examination will firstly consider the names given solely in Welsh, Asser, Life of King Alfred, §75 (ed. Stevenson, 58; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 90). Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§87–9 (ed. Stevenson, 73–5; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 99–100). 22 Einhard, Vita Karoli, §19 (ed. Holder-Egger, 23; transl. Noble, 38). 23 Vita Alcuini, §9 (ed. Veyrard-Cosme, 260–3). For discussion of the parallels between these texts see R. Thomas, ‘Vita Alcuini’, and below, 154. 24 For a summary of this influence, see R. Thomas, ‘Vita Alcuini’, 3–4. 25 Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 110–11; Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 233–4. GPC, s.v. gogledd; deau, de³. For a list of Cambro-Latin features used in the Life of King Alfred, see R. L. Thomson, ‘British Latin’, 51. 26 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 56. I do not include Gueriir as Asser includes this as a name of a saint associated with a church in Cornwall rather than a place-name per se, but this name is discussed further below, see 73–4. 20 21



before proceeding to investigate those given in multiple languages. By focusing the lens on these place- and river-names we can hope to illuminate Asser’s use of, and attitude towards, the vernacular, in turn bringing us closer to understanding the relationship between language and identity in early medieval Wales. Welsh Place- and River-Names There are five names that Asser gives solely in Welsh, with no Latin or English alternative. These names tend to be labelled as ‘Welsh’ in scholarship discussing Asser’s use of place- and river-names, a reasonable usage if the intention is simply to distinguish between these names and those given in English or Latin. However, not all of Asser’s place- and river-names are clearly identifiable as Welsh; some could be in another Brittonic dialect – Cornish, for example. Indeed, when Asser notes that a name is ‘Welsh’, it is the ambiguous term Britannice/Britannico sermone that he uses. And although Asser himself was from St Davids, he was appointed bishop of Sherborne in 890s and, prior to this, held a position at Exeter.27 Considering this context, it is not impossible that he would include certain Cornish names in his biography. Pinpointing the specific provenance of these place- and river-names is a key step in understanding Asser’s use of the vernacular and, consequently, a close examination of each form is required. In what follows I refer to the names given by Asser as British in every instance except where they are clearly identifiable as Welsh, with Brittonic used for reconstructed names. In the year 875 Asser notes that the viking army went to Wareham, ‘quod monasterium sanctimonialium inter duo flumina Frauu et in paga, quae dicitur Britannice Durngueir, Saxonice autem Thornsæta, tutissimo terrarum situ situm est’.28 The source is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s annal for 876, but the explanation of the convent’s location, including the British names Frauu (the river Frome) and Durngueir, is unique to Asser’s account.29 Focusing on Frauu for now, Asser does not tell us that this is a British name, but the ending au never occurs in English place-names.30 The use of the spelling au also suggests that this is a Welsh name specifically, as this would be represented by o in Old Cornish, perhaps giving *Frou. Kenneth Jackson noted that the name Frome (for the river under consideration here, as well as one in Herefordshire, and two in Gloucestershire bearing the same name), derives from Old English Frōm < Proto Welsh *Frǭμ < Brittonic *Frāmā, having been borrowed into Old English in the second half of the seventh century or earlier. This Brittonic *Frāmā also gave Old Welsh Frauu, the name used by Asser, and given to the river Frome in Herefordshire in Canu Llywarch Hen.31 Max Förster pro See discussion below, 70–2. Asser, Life of King Alfred, §49 (ed. Stevenson, 36–7; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 82): ‘a convent of nuns situated in the district called Durngueir in Welsh and Dorset in English, between the two rivers Frauu and Tarrant, in a very secure position.’ The phrase et Terente is supplied by Florence/ John of Worcester, see Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 37, n. 6. John included sections of the Life in his chronicle and may have been using the now lost Cottonian MS, see Stevenson, Asser’s Life, lvi–lvii. 29 ASC A 876. 30 Jackson, Language, 294, 416–17. 31 Ibid. Cf. Ekwall, English River-Names, 167–8; Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 248–9. On the reference to Ffraw in Canu Llywarch Hen, see Pyll, englyn 29 (ed. and transl. Rowland, 408, 470); Williams, Enwau Lleoedd, 51. 27 28


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

poses in contrast that Asser was familiar with the Dorsetshire-Brittonic form *Frõw and chose to render this as Welsh Frauu.32 Frauu almost certainly derives from a Brittonic ancestor, but Förster’s suggestion raises the possibility that this specifically Welsh spelling in the Life of King Alfred might be Asser’s own doing. It may be that his rendering of this river as Frauu was influenced by his knowledge of the Welsh name for the river Frome in Herefordshire, which would have been near to his path between Wessex and St Davids.33 Asser proceeds to explain that the viking army left Wareham and came to another place ‘qui dicitur Saxonice Exanceastre, Britannice autem Cairuuisc, Latine quoque civitas in orientali ripa fluminis Uuisc sita est, prope mare meridianum, quod interluit Galliam Britanniamque’.34 The source is once again the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but the explanation of Exeter’s location and the provision of the British names Cairuuisc and Uuisc are Asser’s own additions. Jackson analysed Uuisc as deriving from Brittonic *Ēscā.35 As this was presumably transmitted into English in the form Esca – with the earliest surviving evidence for the spelling of Exeter in English being Escancastre in the mid-tenth century – Stevenson concluded that Uuisc could not have been an English form during the time that Asser was composing his biography.36 However, it is not clear that Uuisc must have been, as argued by Stevenson, the name used by the ‘Celtic’ inhabitants of Devon and Cornwall.37 Our earliest attestation of a Cornish name for Exeter and the Exe (Kaeresk and Esk) is eighteenth-century, and thus we cannot know what form the Cornish name would have taken in the ninth century.38 Indeed, the relationship between Esk, which Jackson notes must be from Brittonic *Iscā rather than *Ēskā, and Uuisc is obscure.39 Complicating matters further is the change of a long ē to a diphthong, giving ui in Welsh. Whilst Jackson notes that ē would give ui or oi in Old Cornish, instances of the ui spelling in Old Cornish names all occur in only one text, the Vocabularium Cornicum, which appears to be the work of a Welsh copyist.40 The ui spelling might be a further – if tenuous – indication that Uuisc is a Welsh name. Of course, this does not discount the possibility that Asser was familiar with Cornish names for Uuisc and Cairuuisc. As was perhaps the case with Frauu, the rendering of these forms in the Life of King Alfred may have been influenced by Asser’s own background Förster, Der Flussname Themse, 701. I am grateful to Thomas Charles-Edwards for this suggestion. 34 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §49 (ed. Stevenson, 37–8; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 83): ‘called Exeter in English (Cairuuisc in Welsh, or civitas Exae in Latin), situated on the eastern bank of the river Uuisc, near the southern sea which runs between Gaul and Britain’. The phrase Exae, quae is supplied by Florence/John of Worcester, see Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 252. 35 Rivet and Jackson, ‘The British Section’, 74–5. Cf. Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 376–7. 36 Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 251–2. For a list of attestations see Gover et al., The Place-Names of Devon, I. 20–1. 37 Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 251–2. 38 Ekwall, English River-Names, 154–6. Oliver Padel has suggested to me that Kaer Esk was an antiquarian invention, the -ae- spelling likely influenced by Welsh: O. J. Padel, personal communication, 14/7/20. 39 Rivet and Jackson, ‘The British Section’, 74–5. For further discussion of this problem see Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 376–8. 40 Jackson, Language, 330. On the interpretation of the Vocabularium Cornicum as the work of a Welsh copyist, see Blom, ‘Welsh Glosses’; Lewis, ‘A Possible Provenance’. I am grateful to Oliver Padel for drawing my attention to this point. 32 33



as a Welsh speaker. Alternatively, it may be that Cairuuisc and Uuisc were names used in Wales for Exeter and the river Exe. Bearing in mind Exeter’s location in the south-west, and its previous status as a Roman city, this is not improbable. A third option is that Asser simply transferred the name Uuisc from another river, the Usk. It is perhaps significant in this context that Historia Brittonum, a text with which we know Asser was familiar, records Uuisc as the Welsh name for the river Usk.41 This possibility will be explored further when considering Asser’s provision of the British name Cairuuisc for Exeter.42 After leaving Exeter, the viking army came to ‘Cippanham, villam regiam, quae est sita in sinistrali parte Wiltunscire, in orientali ripa fluminis, quod Britannice dicitur Abon’.43 As well as the name Abon, the reference to Chippenham as a royal villa is an addition to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account, and Asser also uses a Welsh idiom in Latin (in sinistrali parte) to refer to the northern part of Wiltshire.44 Unlike Uuisc and Frauu, Asser notes that the name Abon is British. The English name for the river Avon in Asser’s time was likely Afene. A charter of Cynewulf, dated to 808, refers to the river Afene, but as this only survives in a twelfth-century manuscript we cannot be sure that this was the form when the charter was originally composed.45 Of greater weight is the use of Afene in the A-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 914.46 It is generally believed that this entry was composed as the last annal in a set covering the years 897–914 during the reign of Edward the Elder. This set, along with another series covering the years 915–20, was probably copied into the manuscript in the second quarter of the tenth century.47 This shows that Afene was certainly being used in the period shortly after Asser was writing and it is reasonable to conclude that this would have been the English form in 893.48 The form Abon is not demonstrably Old Welsh and could derive from any Brittonic dialect of this period. As it is the word for ‘river’ in the Brittonic languages, Asser could simply be translating flumen here.49 However, this would be highly unusual as Asser does not translate any other common noun, and thus it seems most likely that he is providing the British name for the river Avon. The final river name is Guilou. Asser tells us that Alfred fought against the viking army at a hill ‘qui dicitur Wiltun, qui est in meridiana ripa fluminis Guilou, de quo flumine tota illa paga nominatur’.50 The description of Wilton’s location is Asser’s addition to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account, and it is generally assumed that Guilou is the British name for the river Wylye.51 However, Asser does not say that HB (Harl.), §66 (ed. Faral, III. 57). For Asser’s familiarity with Historia Brittonum see below, 62–3. See below, 64–5. 43 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §52 (ed. Stevenson, 40; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 83): ‘Chippenham, a royal estate situated in the left-hand part of Wiltshire, on the eastern bank of the river called Abon in Welsh’. 44 See above, n. 25. 45 S 265 (ed. Kelly, Charters of Bath and Wells, 68–9). 46 ASC A 914. 47 Keynes, ‘Manuscripts’, 541–3. 48 Cf. Ekwall, English River-Names, 21–3. 49 GPC, s.v. afon. 50 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §42 (ed. Stevenson, 33; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 81): ‘called Wilton (which is situated on the southern bank of the river Guilou, from which that whole district takes its name)’. 51 Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 241; Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 243, n. 76. 41 42


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

this name is British, and Ekwall, seeing no philological connection between Wilig, the Old English name for the river Wylye, first attested in the thirteenth century, and Guilou, argued that Asser in fact heard the English name Wilig (perhaps with some modification) and chose to represent it by the form Guilou. In Ekwall’s view, then, this is Asser’s own representation of the name used by English speakers.52 Nevertheless, the element -ou is a common Old Welsh suffix in Welsh river-names and thus Guilou could certainly be the British name for the river.53 Jackson argued that Old English Wilig and Asser’s Guilou are in fact related, both deriving ultimately from Brittonic *Ṷīlīsā. This Brittonic form was probably borrowed as Old English *Wīl- in the late sixth century and was also the ancestor of Proto Welsh *Wīl- which in turn gave Old Welsh Guilou.54 It does seem most likely, therefore, that Guilou was the British – no element of this name marks it out as Welsh in particular – name, or at least a British adaptation of the name, for the river Wylye. There is one more name that is given solely in British, and this is a place- rather than a river-name. Arx Cynuit consists of the British name Cynuit preceded by Latin arx and is found in a section of Asser’s biography which departs dramatically from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Chronicle simply states ‘7 þæs ilcan wintra wæs Inwæres broþur 7 Healfdenes on Westseaxum on Defenascire mid .xxiii. scipum, 7 hiene mon þær ofslog, 7 .dccc. monna mid him’.55 Asser’s account is much more extensive, beginning with the unique statement that the brother of Ivar and Halfdan had sailed from Dyfed, after spending the winter there and slaughtering many Christians. He further claims that, after reaching Devon, the viking leader was killed with 1,200 of his men by the king’s thegns ante arcem Cynuit (‘in front of the stronghold of Cynuit’), describing the battle in some detail.56 Cynuit is clearly a British name due to the use of the element -uit (Modern Welsh -wyd), which is not used in English place-names, but its origin is ambiguous.57 The Antonine Itinerary refers to Cunetione (deriving from Brittonic *Cŭnēti̭ ū), which has been associated with a Roman town at Mildenhall in Wiltshire. The Welsh river-name Cynwyd derives from this Brittonic *Cŭnēti̭ ū, as does the name Kennet for the river next to Mildenhall.58 Jackson argued that the settlement (Cunetione) in Wiltshire was named after the river, and that this was also the case with Asser’s arx Cynuit.59 However, Rivet and Smith were doubtful of this assertion as there are no other instances (as far as they could see) of hillforts taking their names from rivers.60 An alternative explanation is proposed by Andrew Breeze, who, pointing to the frequent use of Cynwyd as a personal name in Ekwall, English River-Names, 458–60. Falileyev, Llawlyfr, 8; R. J. Thomas, ‘Enwau Afonydd’; R. J. Thomas, ‘Enwau Afonydd…(Parhad)’; Russell, ‘Some Neglected Sources’, 386–7. 54 Jackson, Language, 341–2. Although note Jackson’s comparison with Welsh Gwili, suggesting that he saw it as belonging to Welsh river-names ending in -i rather than -ou. Cf. R. J. Thomas, Enwau Afonydd, 147–8, noting that there is no connection between Gwili and Wiley/Wylye. 55 ASC A 878 (ed. Bately, 50; transl. Whitelock et al., 49): ‘And the same winter the brother of Ivar and Healfdene was in the kingdom of the West Saxons in Devon, with 23 ships. And he was killed there and 840 men of his army with him’. 56 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §54 (ed. Stevenson, 43–4; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 83–4). 57 Gover et al., The Place-Names of Devon, I. 62–3. 58 Rivet and Jackson, ‘The British Section’, 71. The river Cynwyd is located in Meirioneth: Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 328. 59 Rivet and Jackson, ‘The British Section’, 71–2. 60 Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 328–9. 52 53



early medieval sources, suggests that the hillfort may have been named after a person rather than a river.61 This arx Cynuit is generally associated with Countisbury in Devon.62 Jackson noted that Brittonic *Cŭnētiū was borrowed in Proto Old English as *Cunīt-, developing into Old English Cynete, the river Kennet.63 Ekwall argued that in some instances *Cunīt- would develop to Cound.64 Countisbury would thus consist of a Brittonic first element and English second element.65 Asser also states that Cynuit could only be approached from the east, which is true of Countisbury Hill.66 Whatever the exact origin of the name Cynuit therefore, it seems likely that in Asser’s narrative, it is a reference to Countisbury. Of particular interest in this context is Breeze’s point that Cynuit is in fact only part of the British name for Countisbury – the full name given by Asser is arx Cynuit, with Latin arx presumably a translation of a British first element, perhaps caer, din or dinas.67 An alternative possibility is that Asser was here translating the Old English name – attested as Contesberia in Domesday Book – with arx being a translation of a form of Old English burh.68 However, this would be out of step with Asser’s treatment of place-names more broadly in the Life of King Alfred; where Latin place-names are included, these are normally alongside – rather than instead of – the English names.69 The most likely explanation is that Asser’s arx Cynuit is, as Breeze proposes, an attempt to Latinise a British name. This partial Latinisation of the name suggests that, as with the rivers discussed above, British Cynuit was the name by which this place was known to Asser. What makes this more likely is that the name occurs in an account of a battle including details unique to the Life of King Alfred. It may be that Asser was simply familiar with the events that occurred at Countisbury due to its location in Devon, over which he had jurisdiction as bishop of Sherborne.70 Indeed, Breeze suggests that if Asser’s journeys from St Davids took him up the Bristol Channel, the stronghold at Countisbury would likely have been visible to him on the coast.71 An alternative source might be St Davids itself. Before relating the attack on Countisbury, Asser notes that the viking army wintered in Dyfed and slaughtered the Christians there, a unique detail that presumably originated in St Davids. It is possible that the additional material in this section of the Life of King Alfred all came from the same source. The viking force apparently went straight on to Countisbury after wintering in Dyfed, and it is thus not implausible that the monks at St Davids would have remained aware of their movements. In this context the appearance of ui, as would be expected in Welsh names, as opposed to the Cornish oi, may be Breeze, ‘Countisbury’, 127. Although there are examples of rivers taking personal names, such as the river Braint on Anglesey (from British *Brigantī): Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 325. 62 Gover et al., The Place-Names of Devon, I. 62–3. 63 Jackson, Language, 331. 64 Ekwall, English River-Names, 99. 65 For further discussion, see Gover et al., The Place-Names of Devon, I. 62–3; Breeze, ‘Countisbury’, 127. Whilst the first element is Brittonic in origin it has been anglicised enough to take a case ending. 66 Gover et al., The Place-Names of Devon, I. 63. 67 Breeze, ‘Countisbury’, 127. 68 I am grateful to Oliver Padel for this suggestion. 69 See below, 67. 70 The extent of the diocese of Sherborne is discussed below, see 71–2. 71 Breeze, ‘Countisbury’, 127.



History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

significant. As we have seen, this ui does sometimes occur in Cornish place-names and, consequently, Cynuit cannot be securely identified as Welsh on this basis alone. However, we also have cyn-, where in a Cornish place-name we might expect con-.72 It seems very likely, then, that the form as represented by Asser is Welsh. The names discussed in this section (four rivers: Frauu, Uuisc, Abon, Guilou, and one place-name: Cynuit) are all given solely in British, but only in one instance (Abon) does Asser state that the name is British. Given that Asser provides no alternative to these names, it seems likely that these were the only forms with which he was familiar or could recall at the point of composition.73 How Asser became familiar with these names is difficult to determine: Frauu is unambiguously Welsh, and Cynuit is almost certainly so. There is some slighter evidence to suggest that Uuisc is Welsh, whilst Abon and Guilou could be any Brittonic dialect. The provenance of these names is consequently uncertain; perhaps being the names used at St Davids, in Cornwall, or even elsewhere in the south-west in the ninth century. Welsh, English, and Latin Place-Names There are another six British place-names in the Life of King Alfred, this time given alongside the English names. In three of these cases Asser also includes a Latin alternative. We have already encountered Durngueir: Asser describes Wareham as located ‘in paga, quae dicitur Britannice Durngueir, Saxonice autem Thornsæta’.74 Durngueir is a derivative of Durnovaria, which is the name for Dorchester in the Antonine Itinerary.75 The first element is Brittonic *durno- ‘a fist’, the second element *varia- is obscure, but may be a water-name.76 Whilst the English Thornsæta given by Asser is the name for Dorset rather than Dorchester (Dornwaraceaster), it is possible that British Durngueir is used of both the city and the region; in Asser’s mind, at least, these two names are equivalent.77 Durngueir is most likely a Welsh form, as we would expect o rather than u in Cornish, giving Dorngueir.78 The final two place-names that are given in both British and English (but not Latin) are possibly connected to Historia Brittonum. Asser recounts a battle between a viking force and the ealdormen of Kent and Surrey, which occurs ‘in insula, quae dicitur in Saxonica lingua Tenet, Britannico autem sermone Ruim’.79 The British name Ruim is once more Asser’s addition to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account. O. J. Padel, personal communication, 14/7/20. The exception is Uuisc, the English name for which was clearly known by Asser. See discussion below, 64–5. 74 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §49 (ed. Stevenson, 37; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 82): ‘in the district called Durngueir in Welsh and Dorset in English’. 75 Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 250; Mills, The Place-Names of Dorset, I. 347–8. The name given in the Antonine Itinerary is Durnonovaria, but the variant reading Durnovaria is generally accepted: Rivet and Jackson, ‘The British Section’, 72. 76 Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 345; Rivet and Jackson, ‘The British Section’, 72; Mills, The Place-Names of Dorset, I. 347–8. Alternatively, *varia- may be related to *warīnā, Welsh gwerin, see GPC, s.v. gwerin (I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for this suggestion). 77 For list of attestations see Mills, The Place-Names of Dorset, I. 347. On the unusual form Thornsæta supplied by Asser, see Stevenson, Life of King Alfred, 250, n. 49.8. 78 Jackson, Language, 274. 79 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §9 (ed. Stevenson, 7–8; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 69): ‘on the island called Thanet in English and Ruim in Welsh’. 72 73



It is very likely that, as suggested by Stevenson, the source for this name was Historia Brittonum, which claims that on their arrival in Britain Gwrtheyrn granted the Saxons the island ‘quae in lingua eorum vocatur Tanet, britannico sermone Ruoihm’.80 The order in which the names are given by Asser (Thanet, then Ruim) follows Historia Brittonum, and the British name is introduced using the same Latin formula (Britannico sermone). Significantly, this is Asser’s only use of Britannico sermone; in every other instance he simply labels the names Britannice. Asser also appears to use this same section of Historia Brittonum elsewhere in his biography. His account of Alfred’s genealogy includes a certain Geat ‘quem…iamdudum pagani pro deo venerabantur’, which Keynes and Lapidge have connected to the Geta included in Historia Brittonum’s genealogy of Hengist and Horsa ‘qui fuit, ut aiunt, filius Dei: non ipse est Deus deorum, amen, Deus exercituum, sed unus est ab idolis eorum, quae ipsi colebant’.81 There is substantial evidence, then, that the source for the British name for Thanet was Historia Brittonum. A link with Historia Brittonum is not so certain in the case of the second place-name, Cirencester. Asser notes that the viking army left Chippenham and ‘Cirrenceastre adiit, quae Britannice Cairceri nominatur, quae est in meridiana parte Huicciorum’.82 Based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s annal for 879, Asser adds the British name for Cirencester and the explanation of its location. As Asser is the earliest writer to associate Cairceri explicitly with Cirencester it is difficult to determine the extent of this name’s usage prior to the composition of the Life of King Alfred. We have seen that Cirencester was a place of some importance to the Welsh in the tenth century and, by this point, the name Cairceri was probably common knowledge.83 Its political significance during Alfred’s reign is harder to assess. That it was the next stop for a viking army that had previously stayed at Chippenham, a royal estate, might indicate that it was an important local centre.84 Cair Ceri is also listed as a city in Historia Brittonum – not here identified as Cirencester – but only in the Vatican recension, a version of the text put together in the fifth year of the reign of Edmund of Wessex (943/4).85 The Vatican recension reproduces the list of the twenty-eight cities of Britain found in the Harleian recension, but adds a further five cities of its own, including Cair Ceri.86 The names of all five cities are Welsh, and David Dumville has argued as a consequence that this list must have been updated before this recension of Historia Brittonum left Wales.87 Dumville also suggested that, since the Chartres recension does not include the HB (Harl.), §31 (ed. Faral, III. 23): ‘which in their langue is called Thanet, in British speech Ruoihm’. See Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 186. Andrew Breeze, (‘An Emendation to Ruoihm’) discusses the forms Ruim and Ruoihm and links them to a Welsh misunderstanding and mistranslation of Old English Thanet. See also Coates, ‘Thanet’. 81 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 229, n. 6. Asser, Life of King Alfred, §1 (ed. Stevenson, 3; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 67): ‘whom the pagans worshipped for a long time as a god’; HB (Harl.), §31 (ed. Faral, III. 23): ‘who was, they say, the son of God: he is not the God of Gods, amen, the God of hosts, but is one of their idols that they used to worship’. 82 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §57 (ed. Stevenson, 47; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 85): ‘and went to Cirencester (called Cairceri in Welsh), which is in the southern part of the land of the Hwicce’. 83 See above, 49–50. 84 On Chippenham see Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§9, 52 and 57 (ed. Stevenson, 8, 40, 47; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 69, 83, 85). 85 HB (Vat.), §1 (ed. Dumville, 61). 86 HB (Vat.), §3 (ed. Dumville, 62). 87 Dumville, The Historia Brittonum 3, 4. 80


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

additional cities, they were not present in the common ancestor of the Chartres and Vatican recensions, and so were most likely to have been added during the period 875 x 925.88 Whilst the location of the text when these additions were made is unknown, it is perhaps significant that, of the five additional cities, three are identifiable as being located in the south: Cair Merdin (Carmarthen), Cair Gloiu (Gloucester), and Cair Ceri (Cirencester). Jackson suggested Llandaf as a possible identification for Cair Teim, although the Roman fort at Cardiff might also be a contender.89 Cair Guroc is obscure. Considering this southern bias, it may be that the text was edited in the south: St Davids, which we know to be the location of a version of Historia Brittonum by 954 at the latest, is an option. It is certainly possible that the text had travelled south in the second half of the ninth century or the first half of the tenth century, the period when the five additional cities were most likely incorporated.90 If the text made it to St Davids and was edited there during the second half of the ninth century it would be possible for Asser to have encountered this version of Historia Brittonum, which also includes the references to Geta and Ruohim.91 There is one further name, given in British, English, and Latin, that might also be connected to Historia Brittonum: Exeter. Asser’s description of the city ‘qui dicitur Saxonice Exanceastre, Britannice autem Cairuuisc, Latine quoque civitas ’ was quoted above in the discussion of the river-name Uuisc.92 Cairuuisc is a compound of this river-name and cair (‘fort, city’). We have seen that the spelling ui provides some indication that Uuisc – and so Cairuuisc too – is a Welsh form. It may be that Cairuuisc was already well-established as a name for Exeter: it is plausible that the Welsh had a name for this south-western city, which seems to have been of some ecclesiastical importance and the location of a minster by the end of the seventh century.93 However, the possibility that this name was Asser’s invention ought not to be dismissed out of hand. We have seen Asser’s use of the element cair already in the name Cairceri (Cirencester) and it may be that he understood cair as the equivalent to Old English ceastre. This is even more likely if Asser had Historia Brittonum’s list of the cities of Britain in front of him, which includes a number of cair- names. If this were the case, Asser may have devised Cairuuisc as a British name for Exeter based on his association between the river Exe and the river Usk in south Wales (Uuisc), and his translation of ceastre as cair. In this context it is significant that the Harleian recension of Historia Brittonum’s list of cities of Britain includes the name Cair Legion guar Uc (Caerleon upon Usk).94 Familiarity with this list might explain Dumville, The Historia Brittonum 3, 49–54. Jackson, ‘Nennius’, 52. Jackson identified Cair Teim as deriving from *Tamī, with the common river-name element tam, present in Llandaf (Old Welsh Lan Tam). Considering the location of the fort at Cardiff on the river Taf, this might also be a possibility. For discussion of this fort see Burnham and Davies, Roman Frontiers, 230–3. 90 Guy, ‘The Origins’, 22–3, 55. See above, 11. 91 HB (Vat.), §20 (ed. Dumville, 83). We might even speculate that it was Asser himself who was responsible for compiling the ancestor of the Vatican recension. If this were the case, the appearance of place-names in both this version of Historia Brittonum and the Life of King Alfred would simply be a reflection of Asser’s own authorship. Although unprovable, it is an intriguing possibility. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for this suggestion. 92 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §49 (ed. Stevenson, 37–8; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 83): ‘called Exeter in English (Cairuuisc in Welsh, or civitas Exae in Latin)’. 93 Blair, ‘Exeter’. 94 HB (Harl.), §66 (ed. Faral, III. 57). Dumville’s emendation of Usic to Uisc is followed here: ‘Textual History’, I. 255. For discussion see Jackson, ‘Nennius’, 47.

88 89



Asser’s use of Uuisc for the river Exe, and consequently Cairuuisc for Exanceastre. The Vatican recension does not include the phrase guar Uisc and, thus, if Asser did draw Uuisc from Historia Brittonum this may be an indication that, contrary to the evidence of Cairceri discussed above, it was not a version of this recension with which he was familiar. However, we cannot know when exactly guar Uisc was omitted from the ancestor of the Vatican recension. This may have occurred in Wales, as part of the same process that saw the five further cities added to the list. But, as this change constituted the omission of a Welsh phrase, it is more likely that it was done at a later stage, after the text had moved to England.95 It is possible, if not provable, that the list of cities Asser had to hand contained the additional five cities, including Cairceri, as well as the description of Caerleon as guar Uisc. We might speculate, then, that Asser drew on Historia Brittonum’s list of cities to invent Cairuuisc, but it also remains a likely possibility that this was simply the name used for Exeter in south Wales. In the case of Exeter, Asser also provides a Latin alternative, civitas .96 Civitas Exae is not attested elsewhere: the name given in classical sources for Exeter is Isca Dumnoniorum, and later Latin sources simply use some form of the English name Exanceastre.97 It is possible that this Latin name is provided by Asser as a translation of Cairuuisc, to which it is directly equivalent, drawing on his own knowledge of the English name for the river Uuisc, with which we know he was familiar through the inclusion of Exanceastre. Asser’s treatment of Exeter can be usefully compared with the final two place-names, which are also given in English, British, and Latin. Prior to the battle of Edington in 878 Asser tells us that Alfred’s followers gathered at Ecgbriht’s Stone ‘in orientali parte saltus, qui dicitur Seluudu, Latine autem “sylva magna”, Britannice “Coit Maur”.’98 Latin sylva magna and Welsh coit maur (au confirms this to be Welsh specifically) are directly equivalent (both meaning ‘great forest’), but their relationship to the English name for Selwood is ambiguous. Asser’s source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, refers to Sealwudu, the first element of which is conventionally identified as Old English sealh ‘sallow, withy’.99 As such, Welsh coit maur and Latin sylva magna bear no relation to Seluudu. It is possible that Asser instead identified the first element of Seluudu with Old English sél (‘good, worthy’), providing some – albeit tenuous – link to the Welsh and Latin names given.100 However, coit maur and sylva magna are otherwise unattested as names for Selwood, and the most likely explanation is that Asser did not understand the first element of Sealwudu and simply created a name that seemed appropriate. In other This would be consistent with similar changes made by the English editor, see Dumville, The Historia Brittonum 3, 5. 96 Exae (and the relative pronoun quae which immediately follows it) is not in the transcriptions of the Cotton manuscript, and is supplied from John of Worcester: Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 252. Yet it seems likely that this was part of Asser’s original text, as the statement would not make grammatical sense otherwise. On John of Worcester’s use of Asser, see above, n. 28. 97 Gover et al., The Place-Names of Devon, I. 20–1; Rivet and Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain, 378. 98 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §55 (ed. Stevenson, 45; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 84): ‘in the eastern part of Selwood Forest (sylva magna [‘great wood’] in Latin and Coit Mawr in Welsh)’. On Asser’s petra Ægbryhta (‘Ecgbriht’s stone’), see Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 267. 99 ASC D 878. Variations: Sealwyda (A 878); Selewuda (B 878); Sealwuda (C 879); Wealwudu (E 878). For discussion of meaning, see Gover et al., The Place-Names of Wiltshire, 15. 100 Bosworth and Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, s.v. sél. 95


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

words, Asser could be describing Selwood Forest as a ‘great wood’ based on his own knowledge of the area. Alternatively, the name might be based on someone else’s knowledge of the area: Selwood might have been described to Asser as sylva magna, a description in turn included and translated in the Life of King Alfred. The relationship between the Welsh, Latin, and English names given for Nottingham is weaker still. Asser tells us that in 868 the viking army left Northumbria and ‘Snotengaham adiit (quod Britannice “Tigguocobauc” interpretatur, Latine autem “speluncarum domus”)’.101 Snotengaham can be interpreted as ‘the settlement of the people of Snot’.102 The Welsh (the au in guocobauc marking this name as specifically Welsh) and Latin names diverge from the English, but roughly correspond to each other, the Latin meaning ‘house(s) of caves’, the Welsh ‘the caved house(s)’.103 There could be a link between Snotengaham and Asser’s Latin name, speluncarum domus, since both are constructed with the qualifying elements, snotengas and spelunca, in the genitive plural. Moreover, hām, which bears a wide range of meanings associated with ‘settlement’, is attested as a word used for ‘house’, equivalent to Asser’s Welsh tig and Latin domus.104 The element ty is not normally applied to towns and villages and, similarly in Cornish, ti (‘house’) is only applied to manors in Domesday Book (although in the later middle ages chy (‘house’) is found as an element in numerous place-names).105 These connections are, nevertheless, tenuous, and the first element snotengas bears no relation to guocobauc/spelunca (‘caved/cave’). The Welsh and Latin names do, however, make sense as descriptions of Nottingham, where over 430 caves and tunnels have been discovered.106 Keynes and Lapidge were sceptical of the Welsh having their own name for Nottingham, and have suggested that the name was Asser’s own invention, based on his knowledge of the place.107 This is certainly plausible: we cannot connect the name with any other source, and the correspondence between the Latin and Welsh names suggests that one was conjured as a translation of the other, neither bearing resemblance to the Old English. As with Selwood, it is also a possibility that the Latin speluncarum domus was an informant’s description of Nottingham, subsequently translated into Welsh by Asser. Alternatively, as the Welsh name is given first here, it may be that Asser is providing the Latin as an explanation of Tigguocobauc. Nottingham also stands apart from the other British names given in the text, which are all located in the south (see Map 2) – it is much less likely that the Welsh themselves would have a name for this town. There are clearly differences between the treatment of Nottingham and Selwood on the one hand, and Exeter on the other: Cairuuisc bears close resemblance to the English name Exanceastre and includes a known river-name as a component, while the relationship between Tigguocobauc and Coit Maur and the English alternatives Asser, Life of King Alfred, §30 (ed. Stevenson, 24; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 77): ‘reached Nottingham (which is called Tigguocobauc in Welsh, or Speluncarum Domus in Latin)’. 102 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 241, n. 59. 103 The Latin plural is domūs, and in Old Welsh ig could be used for plural /ei/. For discussion of the spelling of Tigguocobauc see Jackson, Language, 455–6. 104 Cameron et al., Dictionary of Old English, s.v. hām noun. 105 Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 231; Padel, ‘Where was Middle Cornish Spoken?’, 4–6. Tyddewi (the later Welsh name for St Davids, attested from the fifteenth century) is no exception to this rule as ty is used to mean ‘house of God, church’: Owen and Morgan, Dictionary, 431–2; GPC, s.v. tŷ. 106 Blair, ‘Nottingham’. 107 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 241, n. 59; Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 231. See also, Gover et al., The Place-Names of Nottinghamshire, 14. 101



is much more dubious. Tigguocobauc and Coit Maur were probably invented by Asser; the origin of Cairuuisc is more uncertain. Interestingly, there are three other names given in both English and Latin which can help to throw further light on Asser’s references to Cairuuisc, Tigguocobauc and Coit Maur. In 871 Asser tells us of a battle between the viking army and Alfred at a place ‘qui dicitur Æscesdun, quod Latine “mons fraxini” interpretatur’, the Latin name being his own addition to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account.108 The choice of the Latin verb interpretare (‘to explain’), which is also used in one of the two other examples, might be significant. The implication is that the Latin serves as an explanation of the English name. Asser does not normally use interpretare to introduce British place-names; dicitur is used most frequently and nominatur also used on occasion. Thus, Cirencester is described as a city quae Britannice Cairceri nominatur (‘which is called Cairceri in Welsh’), and Dorset dicitur Britannice Durngueir (‘is called Durngueir in Welsh’). Whilst in the case of Selwood Asser simply follows this pattern with the use of dicitur to introduce the English, Latin, and Welsh names in order, he uses interpretare to introduce the Welsh name Tigguocobauc. If interpretare is deployed in the same way here as in the case of Ashdown, we might expect Tigguocobauc to be an explanation of the English name. Of course, we have seen that this is not the case: Tigguocobauc does not correspond to Snotengaham. However, it may be that, not knowing the meaning of Snotengaham, Asser has created a false etymology for the name based on knowledge of the area. Implications A total of eleven British place- and river-names are included in Asser’s Life of King Alfred. Historia Brittonum was likely the source for Ruim, with a possible connection too between this text and Asser’s Cairceri, Uuisc, and Cairuuisc. There are five names given solely in British/Welsh: Cynuit and four rivers (Guilou, Frauu, Uuisc, and Abon). Three names are given in British/Welsh and English (Cairceri, Ruim, Durngueir), and a further three are also given a Latin alternative (Cairuuisc, Tigguocobauc, Coit Maur). In the case of Tigguocobauc and Coit Maur – which are unattested elsewhere – the Welsh and Latin names are roughly equivalent, but their connection to the English names is tenuous. These names are descriptive in nature and were probably invented by Asser, based on his knowledge of the areas. Of the names that are not connected to Historia Brittonum, four can be securely identified as specifically Welsh (Frauu, Coit Maur, Tigguocobauc, Cynuit). Durngueir might also be Welsh, but Guilou and Abon could be in any Brittonic dialect. Crucially, simply because a name is given in Welsh form in the Life of King Alfred does not mean that Asser encountered these names in Wales – it may be that they were familiar to him through another Brittonic dialect but were represented in Welsh in the biography due to his background as a Welsh speaker. This is possibly the case with the river Frauu, the rendering of which may have been influenced by Asser’s knowledge of a river of the same name in Herefordshire. What is clear from this summary is that

Asser, Life of King Alfred, §37 (ed. Stevenson, 28; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 78–9): ‘called Ashdown (which means mons fraxini [‘hill of the ash’] in Latin)’. The other examples are §3 (ed. Stevenson, 5; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 68): ‘Sceapieg quod interpretatur “insula ovium”’ (‘the Isle of Sheppy (which means “island of sheep”)’); §5 (ed. Stevenson, 6; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 68): ‘Aclea, id est “in campulo quercus”’ (‘Aclea (that is, “oak field”)’).



Map 2: British Place- and River-Names in Asser’s Life of King Alfred


there is an inconsistency in Asser’s treatment of British place- and river-names. This inconsistency in turn suggests that there is no single explanation for their inclusion. Bearing this in mind, can the use of place- and river-names reveal anything about Asser’s intended audience? Scholars have long interpreted the inclusion of British names as indicative of Asser’s desire for his work to be read in Wales. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge note the following: That Asser had a Welsh audience uppermost in his mind is clear not only from his concern to explain the local geography of the places that he mentions…but especially from the various occasions on which he provides an explanation in Welsh of an English place-name … Such information would have been inscrutable and unnecessary to an Anglo-Saxon audience, and while it would not have been of much help even to the Welsh, at least it might have made them feel more at home.109

There is something to be said for this explanation when applied to the names for which Asser provides both a translation and an explanation of their location, Durngueir being one such example. However, if this discussion has illustrated anything it is Asser’s inconsistency. The explanation provided by Keynes and Lapidge may shed light on the inclusion of certain names, but its applicability is not universal. The case of Tigguocobauc and Coit Maur is more complicated, for example. Here Asser provides names that are otherwise unattested and appear to function as descriptions of the areas in question. It may be that these names were Asser’s own inventions based on his knowledge of the area: a scholarly exercise of sorts. Alternatively, the Latin names may have been communicated to him as descriptions of Selwood and Nottingham, descriptions that he subsequently included and translated into Welsh in his biography. In both scenarios, facilitating the understanding of a Welsh audience might have been one motivation. The inclusion of both Welsh and Latin is, however, a spanner in the works here. If both names are Asser’s inventions, the inclusion of Latin might be for the benefit of non-Welsh speakers. If, on the other hand, the Latin descriptions of Selwood and Nottingham were supplied by an informant, the Welsh translations were not necessary to render these accessible to a Welsh audience. That audience, after all, was to be presented with a Latin biography. Asser’s desire to draw upon the written sources at his disposal likely drives the inclusion of certain other place-names. The source for Ruim (Thanet) was almost certainly Historia Brittonum. It is unlikely that Ruim was included to facilitate the understanding of Welsh readers or to make them ‘feel more at home’: forms of Thanet appears more frequently than Ruim in Historia Brittonum and a form of Thanet is also used in Armes Prydein. Rather, Asser may simply have wished to incorporate material from one of his sources; there are, after all, plenty of examples of words and phrases included in the Life of King Alfred that are drawn from various other texts.110 As well as Ruim, the Welsh name given for Cirencester, Cairceri, might also derive from Historia Brittonum, and I have proposed a link – albeit more tenuous – with Uuisc and Cairuuisc too. In the case of the latter two names, we might be seeing both scholarly exercises at work; namely the use of written sources to conjure Welsh names for Exeter and the river Exe.

Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 56. For an overview, see Lapidge, ‘Asser’s Reading’.

109 110


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

This is revealing of Asser’s attitude towards the vernacular. In these instances, Asser’s inclusion of British/Welsh names is deliberate, with the British/Welsh names placed alongside those in English and, in some cases, Latin. Asser here showcases his own scholarly credentials, his linguistic capabilities allowing him to provide a fuller analysis of place-names. This is an interesting contrast to Adomnán, for example, who addresses the inclusion of Irish place- and personal-names in his Vita Columbae, expressing a hope that they will not deter the reader.111 Far from apologising for the inclusion of British names, Asser chooses to provide these names alongside the English. Where Adomnán claims to include Irish names purely out of necessity, Asser’s names are deliberate additions. Here it is important to remember Asser’s own context. As discussed above, Asser was a member of an international scholarly community at the West Saxon court and in his biography may have sought to present his relationship with Alfred as akin to that of Alcuin and Charlemagne.112 He was a scholar as well as a Welshman, and these identities interact in his use of Historia Brittonum and invention of Welsh place-names. Indeed, the decision to include place-names in multiple languages might itself be an act of emulation, whether of Historia Brittonum specifically or of other texts that included names glossed in other languages. Bede, for example, occasionally provides place-names in multiple languages in his Historia ecclesiastica, another text with which Asser was perhaps familiar.113 There is a second category of names that are treated differently in the Life of King Alfred and do not function in the same way. These are the names that Asser gives only in British (Frauu, Uuisc, Abon, Guilou, and arx Cynuit) without stating – except in the case of Abon – that they are British. That these names are simply incorporated into the text, alongside other English names in some cases, implies that they are simply the names with which Asser was familiar. This is especially convincing in the case of arx Cynuit, where it seems likely that this was the place-name known to Asser, whether through his positions at Exeter and Sherborne or his connections with St Davids. Asser’s half-translation of the name into Latin, likely replacing a British first element with Latin arx, supports this hypothesis. The only name in this group for which Asser clearly knew the English equivalent is the river Uuisc: Asser provides the English name for Exeter (Exanceastre) and probably drew on the English name for the river to provide the Latin civitas Exae. It may be, however, that it was still the British name that occurred to him in the first instance. This may explain, for example, why elsewhere he provides the British name Durngueir first, before giving the English name Thornsæta. Adomnán, Vita Columbae, preface (ed. and transl. Anderson and Anderson, 2–3). A connection with Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae has been suggested: Sharpe, Adomnán of Iona, 241, n. 2; Bullough, ‘Columba’, 128–9. See also the description of the Frankish language as barbaries by Otfrid of Weissenburg in the dedication to his Old High German poem: Green, Medieval Listening and Reading, 48. 112 See above, 56. 113 Examples include Kinneil, which Bede states is called Peanfahel by the Picts and Penneltun by the English (HE, i.12, ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 42–3); Chester, Legacæstir by the English, Caerlegion by the Britons (HE, ii.2, ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 140–1). In HE, iii.27, Bede refers to a monastery called Rathmelsigi by the Irish (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 312–13). In other instances, Bede provides an English alternative to a Latin name: HE, i.7, ii.16, iii.7 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 34–5, 192–3, 234–5); or simply states that a name is in English: HE, iii.9, iv.23 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 242–3, 406–7). On the likelihood of Asser’s familiarity with the Historia ecclesiastica, see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 231, n. 16. 111



If these British names are included in the text simply because they were the names by which these rivers and places were known to Asser, this raises the question of how Asser came to be familiar with them. The geographical distribution of the names is crucially important in this context. Most lie in the south-west (see Map 2), and Paul Kershaw has suggested that all except Nottingham, Cirencester, and Thanet are located within the diocese of Sherborne, where Asser was appointed bishop sometime between 892 and 900.114 The extent of the diocese of Sherborne, which was subdivided on Asser’s death in 909, therefore merits close attention.115 According to Bede, the diocese was created and granted to Aldhelm in 705 following the division of the see of Winchester. Bede does not comment on the area that Aldhelm covered as bishop of Sherborne, but the B-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that Aldhelm was bishop be westan Selewuda (‘west of Selwood forest’).116 Selwood Forest, Asser’s Coit Maur/sylva magna, is located on the border between Dorset, Somerset, and Wiltshire. However, this statement only occurs in the B-text – the other versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply note that Aldhelm was bishop be westan wuda (‘west of the wood’) – leading to preference in certain quarters for William of Malmesbury’s statement that Sherborne had jurisdiction over Wiltshire and Berkshire, as well as Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall.117 Selwood is not so easily dismissed, however, especially in the absence of a convincing alternative wudu.118 Even if it was not the eastern boundary of the diocese in Aldhelm’s day, the B-text’s claim suggests that this may have been the perception in the late-tenth century when this manuscript was compiled.119 In this context, it may be significant that Æthelweard also refers to Sherborne as the diocese of Selwood in his Chronicon, composed in the late-tenth century and reliant on a source which appears more closely related to the A-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle than to BCDE.120 A further piece of evidence in favour of Selwood as the eastern boundary of the diocese of Sherborne in the ninth century lies in Asser’s account of the revolt against Æthelwulf in 855. He locates the revolt in occidentali parte Selwuda (‘in the western part of Selwood’) and, alongside Æthelbald, lists Ealhstan bishop of Sherborne and Eanwulf ealdorman of Somerset as the antagonists.121 Here again there appears to be a perceived connection between the diocese of Sherborne and Selwood Forest. Also instructive for assessing the extent of the diocese are two lists produced at Sherborne under Abbot Robert Bruynyng (1385–1415) showing the estates in its possession before the division of 909. O’Donovan’s mapping of these estates demonstrates that they are scattered across the south-west.122 Of course, these areas Kershaw’s proposition is noted in Insley, ‘Athelstan’, 19. On the evidence for Asser’s appointment to Sherborne see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 49. 115 On the division after 909 see Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, 210. 116 ASC B 709. 117 ASC ACE 709. See, for example, Magoun, ‘Aldhelm’s Diocese’, 109–11. 118 Barbara Yorke discusses the importance of Selwood as a boundary between east and west Wessex: Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, 22–4, 85. 119 On the compilation of the B-text and its relationship to the other MSS, see Bately, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 2–25. 120 Ibid., 52–3, 59–60. 121 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §12 (ed. Stevenson, 9; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 71). 122 For discussion of the documents see O’Donovan, Charters of Sherborne, xxxvii–xl; discussion of the estates on xli–l; map of the estates on xxxviii. See also Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, 55–6. 114


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

may not necessarily have fallen under Sherborne’s jurisdiction. Nevertheless, there is clearly contact of some sort, and as bishop Asser would have been at the heart of this web of connections. Even before his appointment as bishop of Sherborne, Asser was granted two monasteries in Somerset – Congresbury and Banwell – by Alfred.123 We cannot be certain that most of the places and rivers given British names in the Life of King Alfred were located in the diocese of Sherborne itself, then, but they were certainly close enough to be known to Asser through his ecclesiastical positions in the south-west. As to the western boundary, it is doubtful whether Devon and Cornwall were included in the diocese on its creation in 705, but by Asser’s time jurisdiction certainly extended over Devon (as Asser’s position at Exeter illustrates), and perhaps also over parts of Cornwall.124 In the early tenth century Edward the Elder established a further see at Crediton in Devon and provided its bishop with three manors in Cornwall enabling him to visit the Cornish each year and correct their practices of faith.125 There might be a precedent for such an interest in the ecclesiastical affairs of the Cornish in the ninth century: Asser tells us that Alfred stopped to pray at the church of St Gueriir when hunting in Cornwall, and his own appointment to Exeter apparently included jurisdiction ‘in Saxonia, et in Cornubia’.126 Indeed, this may have been one of the reasons for granting Asser, a Brittonic speaker, a position at Exeter, and then Sherborne. The specific language of these names is a key issue in this context. As noted at the beginning of this discussion, these names are frequently labelled ‘Welsh’, but not all are in fact clearly identifiable as Welsh, as opposed to generally British. As Frauu, Tigguocobauc and Coit Maur are Old Welsh (rather than Old Cornish) forms, Max Förster suggested that this was most likely the case for all of Asser’s place- and river-names.127 However, the significance of the inconsistency with which Asser treated these names must not be underestimated. Tigguocobauc and Coit Maur were likely invented by Asser and consequently no broader conclusions can be extrapolated from the forms of these two names alone. After all, that two names invented by Asser himself take the form of Old Welsh is unsurprising – we would expect no different from a Welshman. However, not all place- and river-names included in the biography are Asser’s inventions, and in many other instances their form is ambiguous. Frauu is certainly Welsh, and Cynuit most likely so, but in a number of other cases the evidence identifying the names as Welsh is either non-existent or too slight to be conclusive. Crucially, the form that these place- and river-names take in the Life of King Alfred is Asser’s design. In other words, simply because a Welsh form is given in the biography the place-/river-name need not have been encountered by Asser in Wales. Frauu is clearly a Welsh name, for example, but it is quite possible – if not probable – that the river-name was known to Asser through another Brittonic dialect. The Welsh form given in the biography might result from his identification of the river as bearing

Asser, Life of King Alfred, §74 (ed. Stevenson, 55; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 97). Magoun, ‘Aldhelm’s Diocese’, 113. Aldhelm did have significant contact with Geraint, king of Dumnonia, who is also listed as a benefactor of Sherborne, see Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, 179–81. 125 Olson, ‘The Absorption of Cornwall’, 97. 126 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §81 (ed. Stevenson, 68; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 97). For Alfred hunting see §74 (ed. Stevenson, 55; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 89). 127 Förster, Der Flussname Themse, 700–1. 123 124



the same name as the river Frauu in Herefordshire.128 Indeed, it is unlikely that Asser himself would have thought of the various Brittonic dialects as separate languages. In many cases there would have been little difference in the rendering of these names in the various dialects, with simply some minor variations in spelling. An example of how these dialects could interact is provided by the glosses in De raris fabulis, a classroom text found in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 572. Here, there are both Old Welsh and Old Cornish glosses, as well as some forms including both Old Welsh and Old Cornish features. Indeed, Paul Russell notes that the differences between the languages are so minor that it is often unclear whether they are genuine linguistic differences or simply result from varying scribal practices.129 Such uncertainty over the forms of these place- and river-names, including the possibility that they were adapted by Asser himself, means that they cannot be linked conclusively to the Brittonic speakers of any one geographical area. These names may have been familiar to Asser through communication with Brittonic speakers in Wales, Cornwall, Devon, or even elsewhere in the south-west. Ekwall suggested that Asser’s use of British names for places and rivers in Wiltshire and Dorset pointed to the existence of a Brittonic-speaking population in these regions in the ninth century.130 Jackson disputed this notion, highlighting Asser’s provision of a Welsh name for Nottingham, where it would be highly implausible to envisage the survival of Brittonic-speaking communities.131 As we have seen, Tigguocobauc was likely Asser’s own invention, and consequently cannot be treated as representative of every British place- and river-name in the biography. Nevertheless, considering the small number of British place-names that survive east of Cornwall, the survival of Brittonic in these areas until the ninth century is unlikely.132 Indeed, noting the survival of far fewer British place-names in Devon in comparison with Cornwall, Oliver Padel suggests that the process of English replacement of British place-names in the former region had been completed by the ninth century.133 However, a number of British place-names do survive from the areas that would have fallen under the jurisdiction of Sherborne during Asser’s lifetime and, consequently, there is a possibility that this accounts for Asser’s familiarity with some of his British place- and river-names.134 Another option is that these names were included in records kept at Sherborne. There is tantalising evidence illustrating that such transmission was possible in a fourteenth-century list of benefactions to Sherborne, which includes a Dorsetshire estate by the British name Lanprobi, allegedly given to Sherborne by the West Saxon king Cenwalh (ob. 672).135 Admittedly, this is less probable in the case of Asser’s place- and river-names that include some Welsh features, such as Frauu or Cynuit. If Asser had read – rather than heard – these names, the Welsh spelling is less easily explained. An alternative possibility is that Asser was familiar with these names through contact with Brittonic speakers in Cornwall, his positions at Exeter and Sherborne involving some degree of jurisdiction over at least parts of this region. This may See above, 58. Russell, ‘An habes linguam Latinam?’, 202–5. 130 Ekwall, ‘The Celtic Element’, 28. 131 Jackson, Language, 239. 132 Padel, ‘Place-Names’, esp. 225–30. For discussion of the linguistic impact of Brittonic on English see A. Campbell, Old English Grammar, 219–20. 133 Padel, ‘Place-Names’, 223. 134 The most recent treatment of such names is Coates and Breeze, Celtic Voices, see esp. 7–13. 135 Finberg, ‘Sherborne’, 104–5; Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, 178–9. 128 129


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

account, for example, for his familiarity with the otherwise unknown St Gueriir, whose church in Cornwall Asser reports Alfred to have visited whilst hunting.136 Of course, Asser’s background was in St Davids and we cannot discount the possibility that some of these place- and river-names might have been known in Wales. This might explain the inclusion of arx Cynuit, for example. Asser’s reference to this place immediately follows a notice of the viking army wintering in Dyfed, information likely linked to St Davids. Names possibly drawn from Historia Brittonum and Asser’s inventions aside, there is a cluster of British place- and river-names with which Asser may have been familiar through contact with Brittonic speakers in the south-west or Wales. There is no concrete evidence to favour any one single explanation for Asser’s familiarity with these names. Indeed, the most likely scenario is that these names reached Asser through multiple different routes of transmission. This has broader implications for how we understand the significance of the inclusion of these place- and river-names in Asser’s work. Observing the bias of the British names given towards the south-west, Charles Insley suggests that Asser’s Life of King Alfred was in fact intended to be read in Cornwall; an attempt, perhaps, to convince the Cornish of the legitimacy of Alfred’s overlordship.137 As discussed in the introduction, it is likely that Asser had several audiences in mind, including those at St Davids and the West Saxon court.138 Considering Asser’s own position and interests in the south-west, the Cornish can quite plausibly be added to this list. However, Asser’s inconsistency speaks against any link between these place- and river-names and his intended audience. There are a multitude of reasons for Asser’s inclusion of British names, and these names cannot then be taken as straightforward evidence for his intended audience, whether Welsh or Cornish. The case for a Welsh audience does not collapse if we concede that Asser’s treatment of place- and river-names is more complex and inconsistent than previously realised; there is plenty of other evidence suggesting that Asser intended his work to reach Wales.139 Rather, what this discussion has illustrated is that Asser’s provision of British place- and river-names cannot serve that conclusion in any straightforward way. There is something to be said about Asser’s own identity here too. Certain British place- and river-names were likely included in the Life of King Alfred because these were the names with which Asser was familiar – Asser was not reaching out to a specific audience, but rather reflecting his own identity as a Brittonic speaker. Without doubt, Asser actively chooses to include certain British names in his biography. In so doing he may, on occasion, have been attempting to accommodate – or appeal to – one of his intended audiences. Elsewhere he was likely demonstrating his scholarly credentials, through the use of written sources or inventing his own Welsh and Latin place-names. However, there are also a number of British names that are incorporated into the biography without further comment, and it is likely that these were simply the names with which Asser was familiar. Clearly, whilst these place- and river-names are frequently cited as a group, there is great benefit to their consideration on a case-by-case basis.

Asser, Life of King Alfred, §74 (ed. Stevenson, 55; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 89). For discussion of St Gueriir and Asser’s claim that St Neot’s body was also located there, see Olson, Early Monasteries, 85–6. 137 Insley, ‘Athelstan’, 19. 138 See above, 15–16. 139 See above, 15. 136



Considering this complexity and inconsistency, we should not expect a straightforward relationship between Asser’s treatment of the vernacular and the construction of ethnic identities in his text. In such instances where Asser provides a name in both English, Saxonice, and British, Brittannice, he is drawing a clear distinction between the two languages, and, by implication, their speakers. Indeed, if, as suggested above, Coit Maur and Tigguocobauc are Asser’s own invented names for Selwood and Nottingham, then he goes out of his way to draw attention to this distinction. Here Asser is not only acknowledging the linguistic difference between the Britons and the English, but also underlining it. By eschewing the use of one vernacular language, Old English, in favour of Latin, Asser provides non-English speakers with access to the historical narrative of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. As will be discussed further in Chapter 5, Asser also goes further than simply opening the door: he proceeds to lead the Welsh into this Alfredian version of history by highlighting their role in this narrative. But his use of Latin itself also serves to widen participation in Alfred’s kingdom and its associated history, inviting members from beyond the border as defined by the Old English of his source. Somewhat paradoxically, however, his inclusion of another vernacular language, British, establishes that these new members are different. Crucially, the groups between which a distinction is drawn are defined purely by language. The conclusion that not every place- and river-name is demonstrably Welsh – and that Asser himself would not necessarily have appreciated the difference between the Brittonic dialects – is important here. The distinction being drawn is between speakers of the Brittonic languages – not the speakers of Welsh specifically – and English speakers. The geographical distribution of the British names given by Asser is also significant in this regard. In Chapter 1 I discussed the development of Wales as a distinct unit, pointing to Asser’s description of Offa’s Dyke as a boundary between Britannia (Wales) and Mercia. However, his provision of a number of British place- and river-names beyond this border, in the south-west and in some cases even further afield, suggests an association with a much broader territory. In his inclusion of these names, Asser highlights the linguistic difference between two groups, but it is language, rather than geography, that gives these groups their coherence.

Vernaculars in Historia Brittonum Considered in the context of the increasing production of Old English texts at Alfred’s court, Asser’s decision to compose a Latin biography has raised eyebrows. The composition of Historia Brittonum in Latin by a cleric in Gwynedd is not so surprising. All historical writing surviving from early medieval Wales is in Latin, and the text of Historia Brittonum in Harley 3859 was transmitted alongside a Latin chronicle.140 This is not to dismiss the possibility of composition and transmission of history in the vernacular; sections of Historia Brittonum itself abound with echoes of vernacular sources.141 Nevertheless, by providing them with a Latin history, Nennius placed the Britons on the same stage as numerous other European gentes already the subject of their own histories. This is especially significant if the history was intended to challenge Bede’s view of the Britons: in Latin this counter-argument could be read far and wide. On the status of Latin see Fulton, ‘Negotiating Welshness’, 45. On the origins of these texts as a compilation, see above, 11. 141 See below, 78–82. On the possible extent of early Welsh vernacular literature see Sims-Williams, ‘The Uses of Writing’. 140


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

Latin is not, however, Historia Brittonum’s only mode of expression. ‘The author reveals his national origin in a number of ways’, David Dumville notes, pointing to a constant use of Welsh names, a glossing of Latin and Old English names in Welsh, and the use of ‘semi-Old-Welsh orthography’ to render Old English names.142 To this list we should add the vernacular influence on the text’s Latinity: like Asser, Nennius uses sinistralis and dextralis for north and south, for example.143 Dumville concludes that ‘we can have no doubt whatever that our author was a Welshman, and that he was writing in a Welsh milieu for a Welsh audience’.144 The use of Welsh in Historia Brittonum, then, is a reflection of the author’s own identity, his subject matter and the material at his disposal, and his intended audience. Nevertheless, there is more that can be said about the treatment of the vernacular in Historia Brittonum. Considering the text’s context, as outlined by Dumville above, this vernacular will be referred to as ‘Welsh’ in most cases. Historia Brittonum is a history of the Britons, however, and the use of ‘Welsh’ here does not assume an exclusive association with the inhabitants of Wales. Moreover, as will be discussed further below, Nennius may also have drawn on sources from other Brittonic-speaking regions, especially in the section of the text conventionally entitled the ‘Northern History’. In what follows these possible sources will be referred to as British or north British. To begin with, further light is shed on the significance of the use of Welsh by comparing it with the use of English. Like Asser, Historia Brittonum tends to provide the Welsh equivalent for English place-names. Three instances of these occur in the section relating Gwrtheyrn’s dealings with the Saxons. This section states that, on their arrival in Britain Gwrtheyrn gave to the Saxons ‘insulam quae in lingua eorum vocatur Tanet, britannico sermone Ruoihm’.145 Subsequently, Hengist asks Gwrtheyrn for ‘regionem quae in lingua eorum vocatur Canturguoralen, in nostra autem Chent’.146 In the final instance, we are told that Gwrthefyr fought against the Saxons at a place ‘quod dicitur in lingua eorum Episford, in nostra autem lingua Rithergabail’.147 In each case Nennius leads with the Old English before providing a Welsh alternative, and in two of the examples specifies that the latter is the name in nostra (‘our’) language. The Welsh names might be intended as clarifying glosses upon the Old English names provided by the source, quite possibly a Kentish origin legend.148 Such a source would have included Old English names, reproduced in Historia Brittonum alongside the additional Welsh translations. A further instructive example is found in a statement prefacing the ‘Northern History’: Ida was the first Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 55. For a discussion of vernacular influence, see Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 116–20; R. L. Thomson, ‘British Latin’, 42–4. 144 Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 56. 145 HB (Harl.), §31 (ed. Faral, III. 23): ‘the island which in their language is called Thanet, but in British speech Ruoihm’. 146 HB (Harl.), §37 (ed. Faral, III. 29): ‘the region which in their language is called Cantwaraland, but in ours Caint’. In Old Welsh e was often written for ei, Chent here for Ceint, see Falileyev, Llawlyfr, 8. 147 HB (Harl.), §44 (ed. Faral, III. 33): ‘which is called in their language Episford, but in our language Rithergabail’. Dumville suggests ‘Rit her Gabail’ (‘Textual History’, I. 216) but perhaps ‘Rith er Gabail’ would give better sense, meaning ‘Ford of the Pledge’ if the last element is interpreted as gafael (GPC, s.v. gafael¹ (3)). This relies upon interpreting rith as a spelling for rhyd, which is not impossible considering the Anglo-Norman context of the manuscript but is not supported by any other examples of such spelling in the text. 148 On the source used here, see below, 85–6. 142 143



‘rex in Beornica, id est im Berneich’.149 Beornica is a Latinised version of the Old English form, but Nennius adds the clarifying statement im Berneich (‘in Brynaich’), providing the Welsh name for Bernicia, and also using the Welsh preposition in ‘in’ with nasal mutation of the following B- giving im Berneich.150 There is one example, however, that does not follow this pattern as the Welsh name is given first, followed by an Old English gloss. The genealogy of Gwrtheyrn is traced back to a certain Gloyw ‘qui aedificavit urbem magnam super ripam fluminis Sabrinae, quae vocatur brittannico sermone Cair Gloiu, saxonice autem Gloecester’.151 Nennius was presumably using a Welsh source here: Gwrtheyrn is given the epithet guortheneu (‘very thin’), and Dumville has suggested that the two names filius Mepurit and filius Briacat may be corruptions of map Iudnerth and map Ricat respectively.152 Moreover, Gloyw is presented as an eponymous ancestor, giving his name to Caer Loyw. That the Welsh name is given first is likely a consequence of the source used. This does raise the question of why the English name Gloecester is also given. Its inclusion may be an acknowledgement that the town, despite being built by an ancestor of Gwrtheyrn, was in English possession by the time of writing. All these examples presuppose a clear dichotomy between the Britons and Saxons: these are two gentes speaking distinct languages. In the first three cases, Nennius uses Welsh names as alternatives to the English names in his source-material, probably to provide clarification for a Welsh audience. Such clarification was unnecessary in the genealogy, but here, too, Nennius alluded to the difference between the two peoples through adding the English place-name. There is no question over his own affiliation as he uses nostra (‘our’) to refer to the language of the Britons. For Gildas, nostra lingua was Latin, but it is clear from the forms given in Historia Brittonum that here ‘our language’ is Welsh.153 An acknowledgement of language as a key difference between the Britons and Saxons is also evidenced by the attention given to Gwrtheyrn’s interpreter, Ceredig, in the account of the king’s courtship of Hengist’s daughter (§37). Historia Brittonum notes that Ceredig was present at the feast, and that Gwrtheyrn used his interpreter to ask Hengist for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Here the difference in language between Britons and Saxons forms a part of the narrative. As with Asser, it is worth underlining that the distinction is between Brittonic speakers – not Welsh speakers specifically – and English speakers. Ceredig and Gwrtheyrn represent the Britons, Hengist the Saxons. However, the significance of the appearance of Welsh words in the text goes beyond the interaction between these two vernaculars. As already noted, the high number of Welsh place- and personal-names can be linked to the text’s Welsh context, but perhaps of greater significance here is the integration of other Welsh words into the narrative. Excluding known place- and personal-names (including the word cair, which occurs as an element in a great number of place-names in Historia

HB (Harl.), §56 (ed. Faral, III. 39): ‘king in Bernicia, that is in Brynaich’. For discussion of Brynaich/Bernicia see Jackson, Language, 701–5. 151 HB (Harl.), §49 (ed. Faral, III. 35–6): ‘who built the great city on the bank of the river Severn, which is called Caer Loyw in British speech, but in English Gloucester’. Faral has Glovi but the manuscript reads Gloiu: MS Harley 3859, 185v. 152 Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 224, n. 2–3. There is little to suggest a connection between Mepurit and map Iudnerth, but the connection between Briacat and map Ricat is plausible. On filius Briacat cf. Sims-Williams, Celtic Inscriptions, 210. 153 Gildas, DEB, §23 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 26, 97). 149 150


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

Brittonum’s list of the cities of Britain), there are forty-two Old Welsh words in the text.154 The majority of these (seventeen in total) are related to place-names, for example coit (‘wood’), which is part of the place-name Coit Celidon.155 A significant number (fourteen) are elements that form epithets (and a nickname in one instance), and a further three are prepositions.156 There are eight other words, most of them nouns, that do not fall into any of these categories, for example gueith (‘battle’).157 As the inclusion of English names pointed to the use of a Kentish origin legend, so too the use of certain Welsh words might indicate a dependence on Welsh or British material.158 The account of the battle of Nechtanesmere, which Nennius refers to by the otherwise unattested name gueith Linn Garan, fought between the Picts and the Northumbrians in 685, might derive from a Welsh or north British source, for example.159 Perhaps fought in Badenoch, this battle between the Picts and Northumbrians in 685 had lasting implications for the political landscape of north Britain: Bede tells us that ‘Picti terram possessionis suae quam tenuerunt Angli, et Scotti qui erant in Brittani, Brettonum quoque pars nonnulla libertatem receperunt’.160 The meaning of Brettonum pars nonnulla is ambiguous. Bede could here be referring to all Britons previously under Northumbrian overlordship, or, as suggested by Thomas Charles-Edwards, it may be that the kingdoms of Alclud and the Isle of Man obtained their independence while the Britons of Rheged and Gododdin remained subject Dumville provides a full list: ‘Textual History’, I. 294–5. See also his discussion of certain Old Welsh words in the notes to his edition in ‘Textual History’. 155 For clarity, in most cases I have included the phrase of which the Welsh word is a part. Multiple Welsh words that are part of the same phrase are counted separately. Coit Celidon ‘forest of Celyddon’ (§56); Carn Cabal ‘mound of Cabal’ (§73); Cruc Maur ‘great cairn’ (§74); Cruc Ochidient ‘western cairn’ (§27). Ochidient is discussed further below, see 111; Din Guoaroy ‘fortress of Guoaroy’ (§§61, 63); Finnaun Guur Helic ‘the well of Guur Helic’ (§70); Cair Legeion Guar Usic ‘Caerleon upon Usk’ (§66); Vith Guint (§70): second element is ‘wind’, but the first element is unclear (Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 262, n. 1); Inis Gueith ‘island of Gueith (Isle of Wight)’ (§8); Licat Anir ‘spring of Anir’ (§73); Lin Garan ‘lake of the crane’ (§57); Oper Lin Liuan ‘the estuary of the lake of Lliwan’ (§69). 156 Epithets: Talhaern Tataguen ‘Talhaearn father of muse’ (§62); Ecgfrid Ailguin ‘Ecgfrith white brow’ (§61); Catell Durnluc ‘Cadell Brightfist’ (§35); Aedlfred/Eadfered Flesaur ‘Æthelfrith the schemer’ (§§57, 63); Eata Glinmaur ‘Eata of the big knees’ (§61); Cian…Guith Guaut ‘Cian…Wheat of Song’ (§62), Guith is emended from Gueinth (Dumville, ‘Textual History’, III. 701, n. 6); Embreis Guletic ‘Lord Emrys’ (§42); Guorthigirn Guortheneu ‘Gwrtheyrn the very thin’ (§49); Riderchhen ‘Rhydderch the Old’ (§63); Oswald Lamnguin ‘Oswald the white blade’ (§64). Nickname: Catgabail Catguommed ‘battle-seizing battle-refusing’ (§65). Prepositions: guurth Berneich ‘to Bernicia’ (§61); im Berneich ‘in Bernicia’ (§56); o Birneich ‘from Bernicia’ (§61). 157 Atbret Iudeu ‘the restitution of Iudeu’ (§65); cat ‘battle’ (§§56, 66); Catguoloph ‘the battle of Guoloph’ (§66); cetilou ‘battle-seed’ (§20); Dourig Habren ‘the two kings of the Severn’ (§68), dou is emended from duo (Dumville, ‘Textual History’, III. 707, §72, n. 1); gueith ‘battle’ (§57); Rum map Urbgen ‘Rhun son of Urien’ (§63). 158 Cf. Nora Chadwick’s list of possible examples: ‘Early Culture and Learning’, 70–1. 159 HB (Harl.), §57 (ed. Faral, III. 39). Nennius also notes that Bridei was the fratruelis (‘cousin’) of Ecgfrith. On the name Bridei (Birdei in Historia Brittonum), see Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’, 40–1. For discussion of the possible meaning of fratruelis and the relationship between Bridei and Ecgfrith, see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 433–4. 160 Bede, HE, iv.26 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 428–9): ‘the Picts recovered their own land which the English had formerly held, while the Irish who lived in Britain and some part of the British nation recovered their independence’. On the suggestion of Badenoch as the battle’s location, see Woolf, ‘Dún Nechtain’. Cf. Edmonds, Gaelic Influence, 41 and n. 146. 154



to Northumbrian overlords. Considering this context, it is likely that gueith Linn Garan was the name given to the battle by the north Britons that was subsequently transmitted to Wales. Significantly, of the forty-two Old Welsh words, nineteen are included in the ‘Northern History’, a number far greater than those found in any other section of Historia Brittonum.162 The compilation of this section of the text, and the sources used, has been subject to much scrutiny. Kenneth Jackson proposed that the ‘Northern History’ originated as a selection of notes on relations between the Britons and the Northumbrians, possibly compiled by the northern figure Rhun ab Urien. These notes were subsequently synchronised with the Old English genealogies and regnal list at some point between 796 (the proposed date of the compilation of the genealogies as they stand) and the composition of Historia Brittonum itself in 829–30.163 In his view then, Nennius was presented with the ‘Northern History’ in its entirety and simply had to interpolate it into his text.164 David Dumville has convincingly dismissed the need for the interim stage in this model: there is no reason why synchronisation of northern material with the genealogies could not have occurred as part of Historia Brittonum’s composition.165 Nennius did not simply collect material, and there is thematic, stylistic, and structural consistency between the ‘Northern History’ and the rest of the text.166 Concerning this northern material, it is likely that Nennius drew upon the same source that informed the sixth- and seventh-century entries in the Harleian Chronicle, as suggested by Kathleen Hughes.167 Details that appear solely in Historia Brittonum may have been omitted by the compiler(s) of the Harleian Chronicle, or drawn from other sources. The ‘Northern History’ is largely preoccupied with relations of the Britons of Gwynedd and the north with the Northumbrians and Mercians. But these were not the only players of note. The involvement of the Isle of Man in Northumbrian politics in the seventh century has recently been elucidated by Fiona Edmonds.168 Historia Brittonum itself was composed during the reign of Merfyn Frych, king of Gwynedd but also likely of Man.169 Of relevance here is Ben Guy’s argument that the Harleian genealogies originated as ‘an illustrative appendix’ to Historia Brittonum during the reign of Rhodri Mawr, perhaps ca 858.170 This earlier collection included the genealogies of certain ‘Old North’ figures in Historia 161

Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 432–3. Many of these words are discussed in Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’. For an overview of this section of the text, see below, 140. 163 Rhun ab Urien appears in the text as responsible for the baptism of Edwin of Northumbria (§63). The Chartres manuscript of Historia Brittonum attributes the text to a ‘son of Urien’ (filii Urbagen), which scholars have connected with Rhun. For further discussion, see Dumville, ‘Textual History’, II. 314–5. 164 Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’, 44–62. 165 Dumville, ‘On the North British Section’. 166 See below, 140. 167 Hughes, Celtic Britain, 68–71. This argument is discussed further in Chapter 4, see below, 142. 168 Edmonds, Gaelic Influence, 42. Thomas Charles-Edwards notes that the Isle of Man was ‘crucial for the continuing links between the Britons of the north and those of Wales’: Wales and the Britons, 14. 169 The case for Merfyn’s rule of Man is set out by Thomas Charles-Edwards: Wales and the Britons, 472–9. 170 Guy refers to this earlier collection as the ‘Gwynedd collection of genealogies’. This collection subsequently underwent revision at St Davids ca 954: Guy, ‘The Textual History’, 23. 161 162


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

Brittonum, but perhaps also a pedigree of previous rulers of the Isle of Man. The latter, Guy suggests, may have been included because of Merfyn’s status.171 This is likely an additional important context for understanding Historia Brittonum’s knowledge of, and interest in, events in north Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries. Interestingly, of the fourteen Welsh elements that constitute epithets and nicknames, eleven are to be found in the ‘Northern History’. Four of these epithets are given to Northumbrian kings: Oswald Lamnguin, Æthelfrith Flesaur (used on two occasions), Ecgfrith Ailguin, and Eata Glinmaur, and two are for Welsh kings: Rhydderch Hen and Catgabail Catguommed (as a name for Cadafael of Gwynedd).172 The other four are for the Welsh poets: Talhaearn Tat Aguen and Cian Gueth Guaut. A consideration of one of these epithets illuminates the use of the vernacular in Historia Brittonum further. Æthelfrith (ob. ca 616) is referred to as flesaur twice in the ‘Northern History’ (§57 and §63). This is the only attestation of the word flesaur, which is normally translated as ‘schemer’ or ‘twister’.173 The triads in the Red Book of Hergest (also found in a fragment from Hengwrt 202), refer to Æthelfrith as Edelflet Fleissawc, likely an epithet with similar connotations. He is named vrenhin Lloegyr (‘king of England’) and is said to have been killed by Sgafynell ap Dissyuyndawt.174 Clearly there was a wider Welsh interest in Æthelfrith, but as the triads only survive in manuscripts much later in date than Historia Brittonum it is impossible to know if the Historia stands at the head of that tradition or is simply the earliest extant attestation of it.175 Historia Brittonum does not tell us why Æthelfrith was described flesaur. We might speculate a connection with Bede’s description of the Northumbrian king as being particularly notable for harrying the Britons, but there is no concrete evidence for this link.176 The genealogies that appear at the beginning of the ‘Northern History’ simply record Æthelfrith’s epithet, and the names of his sons. When this king appears for the second time, as part of the Northumbrian regnal list, some further information is given: Eadfered Flesaur177 regnavit XII annis in Berneich et alios XII in Deur; XXIV annis inter duo regna regnavit, et dedit uxori suae Dinguoaroy, quae vocatur 178, et de nomine suae uxoris suscepit nomen, id est Bebbanburh.179 Guy, ‘The Textual History’. The ‘Old North’ genealogies are discussed on 11–16, the possible Isle of Man genealogy on 16–17. 172 Jackson argues that Catgabail ‘battle taking’ is a play on Cadafael’s name, Old Welsh *Catamail, with the added epithet Catguommed ‘Battle-refusing’: ‘On the Northern British Section’, 38–9. 173 GPC, s.v. ffleisawr; Williams, Pedeir Keinc y Mabinogi, 116, n. 23; Williams, Canu Aneirin, xv; Gruffydd, ‘In Search of Elmet’, 65. There are examples of other words containing the same element fflais, which comes from Latin flexus ‘a bend, turn’, the most common the adjective difflais ‘unswerving, firm’: GPC, s.v. difflais. Flesaur could thus be describing Æthelfrith as flexible, perhaps morally. 174 For the text see: J. Gwenogvryn Evans, Text of the Mabinogion, 303; Phillimore, ‘A Fragment’, 127. On the form Edelflet see Bromwich, Trioedd, 338–9. 175 For discussion of the date of the triads see Bromwich, Trioedd, lxxxvii–xcix. 176 Bede, HE, ii.2 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 140–1). 177 Harley 3859 has ‘Flesaurs’ (given by Faral) but Dumville gives ‘Flesaur’ based on the reading of other manuscripts: ‘Textual History’, III. 702, n. 16. 178 Following Dumville’s emendation of ‘Bebbab’ to ‘Bebba’: Textual History’, III. 702, n. 20. 179 HB (Harl.), §63 (ed. Faral, III. 43). Harley 3859 reads ‘Bebbanburth’ (followed by Faral), but reading of London British Library, Cotton Vespasian D.21 followed here: Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 247, III. 702, n. 23. 171


Language Æthelfrith flesaur reigned for twelve years in Bernicia and another twelve in Deira; he reigned twenty-four years between the two kingdoms. And he gave Din Guoaroy to his wife, who is called Bebba, and it received its name from the name of his wife, that is Bamburgh.

There is some overlap with the Historia ecclesiastica here. Bede also says that Æthelfrith reigned for twenty-four years, and notes that Bamburgh is named after Queen Bebbe.180 However, Bede does not divide Æthelfrith’s reign into two periods, and Historia Brittonum’s claim that Bamburgh – which is also given the Welsh name Din Guoaroy – was a gift from Æthelfrith is unique.181 It is unlikely, then, that Historia ecclesiastica was the only source for this chapter. The use of the epithet flesaur and the place-name Din Guoaroy suggests, rather, that the source for this unique material was Welsh or north British.182 Charles Phythian-Adams argued that the Welsh epithets given to the Northumbrian kings were originally coined in the north, reflecting the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ identity of these kings.183 We should not dismiss Welsh interest in the affairs of these Northumbrian kings, however. Indeed, according to Bede, Æthelfrith was responsible for a massacre of the monks of Bangor Is-Coed, at which battle the Powys king Selyf ap Cynan was also killed.184 It is not inconceivable, then, that the material used in the ‘Northern History’ was Welsh in origin. Whether Æthelfrith’s epithet originated in north Britain or Wales, Nennius continues the transmission of this material through the vernacular, simply incorporating the epithet flesaur without translation or explanation. A trace of this underlying vernacular material is also to be seen in the use of the Welsh prepositions guurth (‘to’) and o (‘from’). In some cases, the inclusion of Welsh prepositions is best understood as a consequence of the identity of Nennius as a Welsh speaker. Thus, the statement likely intended as a clarifying gloss, im Berneich (‘in Bernicia’), includes the Welsh preposition im. However, both guurth and o occur in statements providing information unique to Historia Brittonum, raising the possibility that Nennius was reliant on Welsh sources that included these prepositions. Of the Deiran king Soemil, Historia Brittonum notes: ‘ipse primus separavit Deur o Birneich’.185 Similarly, it is claimed that Ida ‘junxit Dinguayrdi guurth Berneich’.186 It is surely significant that, in both instances, not only is the information provided on the Northumbrian kings not found elsewhere, but the prepositions are also sandwiched between two Welsh names. In the case of guurth, Din Guayrdi is presumably

Bede, HE, i.34, iii.6 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 116–17, 230–1). The claim that Æthelfrith reigned for twelve years in Bernicia and twelve years in Deira has been interpreted as meaning that he ruled the entirety of Northumbria for the second half of his reign: Cramp, ‘Æthelfrith’. For discussion of Din Guoaroy, see Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’, 27–8. 182 Dumville argues that the use of epithets in Historia Brittonum points to the familiarity of ‘the author with ‘Welsh literary tradition’: ‘The Historical Value’, 18. 183 Phythian-Adams, Land of the Cumbrians, 58–61, 64, 168–9. Challenged in: Edmonds, ‘The Expansion’, 48–9. 184 Bede, HE, ii.2 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 140–1); Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 345. 185 HB (Harl.), §61 (ed. Faral, III. 41): ‘he first separated Deira from Bernicia’. David Dumville suggests that Nennius is referring to the separating of Deira from British rule: ‘The Origins of Northumbria’, 218. 186 HB (Harl.), §61 (ed. Faral, III. 42): ‘he separated Dinguayrdi from Bernicia’. 180 181


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

the Din Guoaroy (Bamburgh) already encountered.187 Thomas Charles-Edwards suggests that there might be some truth to Historia Brittonum’s statement here: Bernicia may have originally been a region within the land of the Gododdin, not including Bamburgh until it was annexed by Ida.188 If so, it is likely that this material derives from a north British source. Personal- and place-names aside, Historia Brittonum includes a number of Welsh words that are simply incorporated into the text without further comment. In certain cases, such words perhaps owe their inclusion to the background of Nennius as a Welsh speaker, as with the preposition im in the explanatory gloss im Berneich. There are other Welsh words, however, that were probably found in his sources. This is the most likely explanation for the epithets given to the Northumbrian rulers. These epithets point to the existence of wider traditions concerning the Northumbrian kings, whether originating in Wales or among Brittonic speakers in north Britain. The frequency of the use of such Welsh words in the ‘Northern History’ illustrates the extent of the debt to vernacular material in this section of the text – a number of the sources used were likely in Welsh. Crucially, Nennius did not feel the need to explain or translate this material. The evidence considered thus far illustrates a complex relationship between language and the construction of identity in early medieval Wales. The labelling of place-names as Brittannicus and Saxonicus, ‘our’ (nostra) language and ‘their’ (eorum) language, establishes language as a key difference between the Britons and Saxons in Historia Brittonum, a view further accentuated by the focus on the role of a translator at a gathering between the two gentes. As was the case with Asser, Nennius does not explicitly state that language is a key part of the definition of a gens, but the distinction drawn between Brittonic and English speakers reflects this assumption. The importance of language is also attested when these writers simply include Welsh words without comment. On one level this may be a reflection – and consequently construction – of individual identity. There are, nevertheless, implications here too for the construction of group identities. As I noted at the beginning of this chapter, there is a tendency to view language as occupying a relatively unimportant position in the minds of medieval writers; other characteristics, such as shared history, appear to have played a more prominent part in the process of identity construction. In this case, the vernacular is an integral part of the way that shared history is being expressed. In Historia Brittonum, key events like battles are named in Welsh, and individuals central to the narrative are given Welsh epithets. Despite writing a Latin history, significant elements of this history are expressed through the medium of Welsh. Of course, Historia Brittonum is a history of the Britons, and the use of the vernacular not only establishes a difference between the Welsh and the English but also highlights their shared kinship with the other Brittonic-speaking inhabitants of Britain. The ambiguity over whether the Welsh epithets given to the Northumbrian kings originated in north Britain or in Wales is further indicative of this. For us, this is an important question when examining the provenance of Historia Brittonum’s sources. For Nennius himself, it would have made very little difference. As discussed in Chapter 1, one of the key layers of identity expressed in Historia Brittonum is the presentation of the Welsh as Britons. The use of vernacular languages in the text is an important building block in the construction of that identity.

187 188

For discussion of Din Guayrdi/Guoaroy see Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’, 27–8. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 383–4.



This point invites comparison with Armes Prydein as we have already seen that the Britons – the inhabitants of Wales, Cornwall, the ‘Old North’, and Brittany, who will possess the land from Brittany to the border with the Scots after the defeat of the English – form one distinct tier in the poet’s coalition. The second layer of the coalition encompasses the allies of the Britons, the Scots and the Irish, who will help them to victory before returning to their own lands.189 The Britons are clearly identifiable as a group in Armes Prydein, then, defined by the poet as those who are the rightful inhabitants of a certain territory. This is simply one strategy of distinction, however, and it is worth considering whether the poet used any other strategies in constructing the identity of the Britons. In particular, is there any evidence that the poet viewed language as important in drawing the Britons together and distinguishing between them and their allies? There are two ambiguous instances where the poet might be drawing attention to the shared language of the Britons: Kyneircheit kyneilweit vn reith cwynnyn. Vn gor vn gyghor vn eissor ynt.190 Followers and supporters complain in the same way They are of one song, one counsel, one nature.

The Kymry are likely the subject here, as they are mentioned in the previous line. There is no explicit reference to language, but the unity outlined by the poet could be interpreted as being at least partly linguistic. Indeed, if Ifor Williams is correct in interpreting cor as ‘song’ here, there is an implicit linguistic element to this line, as presumably this ‘one’ (vn) song is sung in a shared language.191 The second example: Dygorfu Kymry trwy kyfergyr. yn gyweir gyteir gytson gytffyd.192 The Kymry have prevailed through battle, Well-equipped, of joint word, of joint agreement, of joint faith.

Here the focus is on the unanimity of the Kymry, although, as discussed in Chapter 1, Kymry could be referring to the Welsh specifically, rather than the Britons more broadly. Whether the poet viewed the unity of this group – Britons or Welsh – as linguistic depends on our interpretation of kyteir (‘of joint word’), a compound of cyd (‘union’) and gair (‘word’). This compound is first attested in Armes Prydein and is subsequently only attested in texts from the late-sixteenth century onwards.193 It may be that the compound was the poet’s own invention. Either way, it is unclear whether kyteir did have linguistic connotations, or simply meant ‘of joint agreement’.

See Chapter 1. The case of the Hiberno-Scandinavians is of greater ambiguity, see below, 128–9. APV, lines 47–8 (ed. Williams, 2). 191 Williams, Armes Prydein, 30, n. 48; GPC, s.v. côr¹ (4). Note, however, that the meaning of cor here is ambiguous. Lloyd-Jones, Geirfa, 164 suggests ‘turn’ or ‘intent’ as possibilities. See too Rachel Bromwich’s translation ‘of one mind’: Williams and Bromwich, Armes Prydein, 5. 192 APV, lines 125–6 (ed. Williams, 5). 193 GPC, s.v. cydair. 189 190


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

The evidence of Armes Prydein is more difficult to interpret, then, and there is no concrete evidence that the poet viewed language as a characteristic that united the Brittonic speakers of the coalition. In the case of Historia Brittonum and the Life of King Alfred, however, there is a clear distinction drawn between Brittonic and English speakers, and a consequent connection between the Brittonic speakers themselves, whatever their geographical location.

Language and Contention Language may be treated as a difference between peoples in Historia Brittonum and the Life of King Alfred, but we are yet to encounter its presentation as a source of contention. Even Armes Prydein, a text that is concerned solely with conflict, does not explicitly link this conflict to the different languages spoken by the protagonists and antagonists. A similar absence in sources from the eleventh century onwards lay at the heart of Rees Davies’s uncertainty over the role of language in identity construction.194 However, looking beyond what is explicitly stated in our sources, the use of vernaculars in Armes Prydein tells another story. Armes Prydein is part of substantial body of Welsh prophetic poetry and, while it is likely the oldest such poem to survive, there are certain features – such as the pairing of Cynan and Cadwaladr as promised saviours – that point to lost earlier material.195 More broadly, the decision to compose and record poetry in the vernacular was not unique to Wales and is paralleled in other regions.196 Of interest here is the poet’s treatment of another vernacular. There are two English loan-words in Armes Prydein, unattested as common nouns in any other medieval Welsh text, both appearing in a single line of the poem: ‘trwy uwrch y dinas ffoxas ffohyn’.197 What this reveals about the poet’s knowledge of English is unclear: both ffoxas and bwrch appear in glossaries, and it is possible that, rather than being highly familiar with the English language, the poet derived these names from glosses included in Latin texts.198 As bwrch appears as an element in numerous place-names this may also be the source of the poet’s familiarity with the English word. The inclusion of English loan-words here is surely deliberate, enabling the poet to add force to his condemnation of the enemy by insulting them in their own language. This selective use of language can also be seen elsewhere in the poem: on See above, 53. Dumville, ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 156. 196 See, for example: Edel, ‘The Status and Development’; Chadwick and Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, I. 197 APV, line 66 (ed. Williams, 3): ‘foxes will flee through the defences of the fortress’. Armes Prydein also contains certain English-derived place-names: Danet (lines 31, 41, 173); Santwic (line 188). It has been suggested that Sandwich derives from a written source, perhaps Asser’s Life. As this instance has already been the subject of sustained discussion it will not be considered in detail here. It is unclear whether the poet realised that this place-name was English – as opposed to Latin or British – and it does not seem to be the case that the place-name is used as part of a commentary on language, indeed it seems more likely that this is a specific response to Asser. For further discussion, see Thomas and Callander, ‘Reading Asser’. For a discussion of some of the English words borrowed into Welsh before the fourteenth century, see Fulton, ‘Negotiating Welshness’, 163–4. See also Parry-Williams, The English Element. 198 In Cameron et al., Dictionary of Old English, forms of fox occur in 24 Old English/Latin glosses and vocabularies, with foxas occurring three times. Forms of burh occur very frequently (s.v. burh). For a more detailed discussion see Thomas and Callander, ‘Reading Asser’, 124–7. 194 195



several occasions the poet uses kechmyn or kychmyn (‘shitmen’) and allmyn (‘foreigners’) as labels to describe the English, where the final element -myn is derived, or perhaps perceived as being derived in the case of allmyn, from English.199 The impression given is of the enemy’s language being thrown back in their faces. That the English are described as ffoxas in particular is perhaps significant as this image also occurs in both Historia Brittonum and Asser’s Life of King Alfred. In the case of Historia Brittonum the Saxons are described as thinking in a ‘fox-like manner’: ‘et Saxones, amicialiter locuti, in mente interim vulpicino more agebant’.200 Asser similarly describes the viking army acting vulpino more (‘like foxes’).201 The relationship between the imagery used in Historia Brittonum and Asser’s Life of King Alfred is discussed elsewhere, but for the moment it is enough to comment that Armes Prydein’s description is paralleled in these other texts.202 The significance here is that the poet of Armes Prydein is clearly associating the English with their language, and is using this language as an insult. The poet does not state explicitly that their language is an important distinction between the English and the Britons, but this use of English loan-words implies that this was very much perceived to be the case. Looking back to Historia Brittonum, references to place-names in multiple languages make it clear that language is perceived as a key difference between the Britons and Saxons but, in such cases, language is simply presented as a difference without further comment. I have also already drawn attention to the role of the translator, Ceredig, in facilitating communication between Gwrtheyrn and Hengist. In this instance, Historia Brittonum explicitly highlights language difference. More can be gleaned, however, from the context in which Ceredig makes his appearance. At this point in the narrative Gwrtheyrn is seeking to marry Hengist’s daughter, a course of action of which Nennius clearly disapproves, stating that Gwrtheyrn’s desire derived from Satan entering his heart (intravit Satanas in corde Guorthigirni).203 As will be discussed further in Chapter 4, the paganism of the Saxons is presented as another distinction between them and the Britons, and Gwrtheyrn’s co-operation with Hengist is thus perceived as unnatural and immoral. The reference to the translator Ceredig in this specific context may be serving the same function: language is another gulf between the two peoples across which Gwrtheyrn is stepping, with disastrous results. The use of Old English in Historia Brittonum’s account of the treachery of the long knives is also of interest here. Hengist outlines his plan to his Saxon followers, stating his intention to use the phrase enimenit saxas (‘draw your knives’) as a code for the Saxons to begin slaughtering the Britons.204 This Old English phrase plays on the similarity between Saxones (‘the sword people’) and saxas (‘knives’).205 It seems likely that this origin legend ultimately derives from an English source.206 Attention has been Kechmyn/kychmyn: APV, lines 27, 40, 184. Allmyn: APV, lines 7, 28, 52, 94, 106, 142, 189. On the latter, see Russell, ‘“Verdunkelte Komposita”’, 123–4. 200 HB (Harl.), §46 (ed. Faral, III. 34): ‘and the Saxons, while speaking in a friendly way, were thinking in a fox-like manner’. 201 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §20 (ed. Stevenson, 18; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 74). 202 See below, 163. 203 HB (Harl.), §37 (ed. Faral, III. 29). 204 HB (Harl.), §46 (ed. Faral, III. 34). 205 Sowerby, ‘Hengist and Horsa’, 14. 206 Brooks, ‘The English Origin Myth’, 82–3. Historia Brittonum’s spelling of Hengist may be significant. This occurs as Hengest in the Common Stock of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, reflecting the falling together of e and i in unaccented contexts (likely in the eighth century, see A. 199


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

drawn to the appearance of similar episodes elsewhere, for example in the work of the tenth-century Saxon chronicler Widukind of Corvey, and thus it is probable that the treachery of the long knives was part of a wider Germanic folklore, or indeed simply an antique folklore motif more generally.207 Either way it seems clear that this is a relic of the source used by Nennius rather than his own invention. Crucially, as Dumville notes, barring a few place- and personal-names, this is the only use of Old English in Historia Brittonum, and thus signifies more than simply a choice of source.208 Nicholas Brooks has argued that the English origin myth is presented for a Welsh audience in Historia Brittonum, with the Saxons depicted in a negative manner.209 If this material was originally developed in Kent, it is unlikely that Hengist, the founder of the Kentish dynasty, would have been cast as a villain. Similarly, it has been stressed that, in continental versions of the treachery of the long knives, such as that provided by Widukind of Corvey, the perpetrators are in fact depicted much more positively, which further implies that Nennius manipulated his material.210 In this context the decision to keep this phrase in Old English is important. Not only does Nennius use this tale to stress the treachery of the Saxons, but he also associates this treachery with their language. As the poet of Armes Prydein turned to English loan-words to insult the English, so the most substantial use of Old English in Historia Brittonum occurs at the very moment that the greatest treachery of the Saxons is revealed.

Conclusions Language is highlighted as a difference between peoples in all three texts. Asser labels place- and river-names as Britannice and Saxonice, distinguishing between the two languages and also between the speakers of those languages. The same distinction is drawn in Historia Brittonum, but here the Nennius goes a step further in identifying himself with one of the linguistic groups – Welsh is nostra lingua (‘our language’), English eorum (‘theirs’). Attention is also drawn to linguistic difference in the account of conflict between the Britons and Saxons, with the inclusion of Hengist’s command for the Saxons to draw their knives in Old English. That Nennius chooses to include English dialogue at this moment when the treachery of the Saxons is revealed is surely significant: the use of this different language leaves the audience in no doubt that those holding knives to the throats of the Britons belong to a different gens. Old English is used to similar effect in Armes Prydein: here, the poet uses the English loan-word ffoxas to describe the enemy fleeing like foxes. Adding insult to injury, the poet draws on their own language to describe the cowardly response of the English to defeat. The conflict between the Britons and the English in Armes Prydein is not the result of language – it is the past transgressions of Hengist and Horsa and the present crimes of the mechteyrn that preoccupy the poet. The deliberate deployment of English words at this point in the poem does, however, give heightened Campbell, Old English Grammar, 153–4): ASC A 449, 455, 457, 465, 473. It may be, then, that Nennius was using an earlier written English source. Bede also has Hengist: Bede, HE, i.15 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 50–1). 207 Brooks, ‘The Creation and Early Structure’, 44–5; Sowerby, ‘Hengist and Horsa’, 14–15; Ross, ‘Hengist’s Watchword’. 208 Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 43. 209 Brooks, ‘The English Origin Myth’, 82–3. See below, 135–9. 210 Sowerby, ‘Hengist and Horsa’, 14.



intensity to the depiction of hostility between the Britons and the English by literally sounding a fundamental note of ethnic difference. Key to the formation of a group identity is the belief that its members possess certain characteristics uniting them as a group and distinguishing them from others. In these texts, language is one such characteristic – the Britons and the English can be clearly distinguished based on the language that they speak. Crucially, because language is the defining characteristic, the difference is between the speakers of the languages and not necessarily between the inhabitants of specific territories. For Asser, for example, the difference is between those who refer to Cirencester as Cirrenceastre and those who say Cairceri; whether those who say Cairceri live in Wales, the south-west or elsewhere is irrelevant. Although we have seen in the previous chapter that Asser did view Wales as a distinct territory, it is nonetheless the difference between Brittonic speakers and English speakers more broadly that he highlights here. In other words, this linguistic group identity was not linked specifically to the unit of Wales. The same is true of Historia Brittonum – Gwrtheyrn, king of the Britons, speaks a different language to Hengist, leader of the Saxons. The British place-names given in the text are scattered across Britain and vernacular sources used in the ‘Northern History’ could have originated in northern Britain or Wales. When placed alongside the conclusions of the previous chapter, then, we see the construction of multiple group identities in these texts. Language connects the Welsh to the Brittonic speakers of Cornwall and north Britain, even as Asser’s territorial designations proclaim their difference. The different strategies of distinction used in our works did, however, interact. Asser may have treated Wales as a territorial unit, separate from the other Brittonic-speaking regions, but his inclusion of British names for various places in the south-west reflects an association of Brittonic speakers with a much broader territory. As will be discussed further in Chapters 3–5, the identity of a gens is also constructed through a belief in the shared history of its members. Here we have seen how this strategy interacts with language in Historia Brittonum. The vernacular is frequently used to provide the names of battles or epithets of individuals – such as Æthelfrith Flesaur. We can certainly point to this vernacular usage as evidence for putative Welsh/British vernacular sources underlying Historia Brittonum. But more importantly in this context, it also indicates how the vernacular could play a significant part in telling the history of the Britons. All this leads us to ask whether language is really an isolated category, separate from the other elements perceived as important in the construction of identity. Rees Davies highlighted the importance of law, for example, in the formation of collective identity. The compilation of law collections could bring a diverse group of people together under one law, and the antiquity of the legal tradition validated the collective identity of that people.211 In the case of medieval Wales, however, it is not clear that law and language can be considered as wholly separate categories. At the beginning of this chapter, I referred to the use of the word anghyfiaith (‘not of the same language’) in a number of Welsh texts. In Llyfr Iorwerth, the version of the Welsh laws associated with thirteenth-century Gwynedd, the anghyfiaith are listed as a group of people who are not permitted to act as sureties.212 Here language forms a R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland…III’, 1–12. See also Ll. B. Smith, ‘Yr Iaith’, 188–9. 212 Llyfr Iorwerth, §66 (ed. Wiliam, 40; transl. D. Jenkins, 75–6). See also GPC, s.v. anghyfiaith. For further discussion, see R. Thomas, ‘Ystyr Anghyfiaith’. 211


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defining element of the law and the identity that it creates. And so language as a mark of distinction between peoples cannot necessarily be separated from the other characteristics highlighted as important to the construction of identity. Another element important in the formation of group identity is the creation of a common past. This common past can demonstrate the antiquity of the group in question and can be used to define, explain, and legitimise its membership. The following two chapters will discuss the ways in which Nennius sought to create a common past for the Britons. The role of the vernacular in Historia Brittonum’s presentation of history shows that language cannot be separated from the construction of this common past. As this and other cases discussed in this chapter have demonstrated, language must be seen as an essential and integral part of the literary construction of an ethnic identity.



As a strategy of distinction, the creation of a common past has much to recommend it. A gens is a gens because it has always been so. The history of a gens can be used to create a distinct space for its members, allegedly evidenced in the past but also an explanation of, or aspiration for, the present and future.1 Texts that seek to establish such national histories abound in the early middle ages. They are by no means objective records of past events. Historical writing was driven by present circumstances, whether unconsciously or by political necessity; these texts cannot be divorced from the intentions of the author and must be understood as products of a specific context.2 Committing the past to writing involved numerous choices. We might ask why a particular version of the past was committed to memory at a specific time and place. And what role did a particular version of the past have in the construction, bolstering, and contesting of identities? The writing of history and its use as a strategy of distinction is the subject of the three remaining chapters in this book, beginning here with the treatment of origo gentis. Many early medieval national histories begin with an origin legend that seeks to explain how a gens established itself. Such stories do more than simply satisfy curiosity about the origins of a gens: they set out the ancient shared past of its members. They construct an identity and offer an explanation – and in many cases legitimisation – of how the present situation came to be.3 This might appear straightforward, but there are certain hurdles to identifying and defining origin legends. An early medieval text might, for example, outline the origins of a gens before proceeding to recount their subsequent history. In such a context, how do we identify the beginning and end of the origin legend? Alheydis Plassmann further notes that key elements of an origin legend are frequently only explicable when read against the backdrop of the history of the gens more broadly.4 Historia Brittonum is a good example. It would be reasonable to identify its origin legend of the Britons as the account of their journey from Troy to Britain. However, the significance of certain aspects of this story – such as the arrival of the Britons to an empty island – is only illuminated when we continue to read of their later interaction with the other gentes who come to inhabit Britain. R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland… IV’, 15–16. In other contexts, the term WirGefühl has been used to describe the ‘us-ness’ that is created by a common past: Innes, ‘Introduction: Using the Past’, 1. 2 One of the most influential works in this regard was Goffart, Narrators. For an overview of the development of this approach to early medieval texts, see Innes, ‘Introduction: Using the Past’, 1–4. Patrick Geary’s work on memory in the middle ages is also relevant here, which identifies all memory as having a broadly political purpose: Phantoms of Remembrance, 7–16, esp. 12. 3 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 378. 4 Ibid., 370. 1


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

A further hurdle is the issue of categorisation itself. Namely, what justifies the labelling of a text as an origin narrative, and how useful is such a classification? Plassmann argues that a defining characteristic of national histories centred on origin narratives is their specific intention to construct an identity and/or legitimise a particular order. This is in contrast to other types of historical writing, such as universal chronicles, where an identity might still be constructed, but as a by-product rather than the primary objective.5 There is undoubtedly significant overlap between these genres; universal chronicles were frequently a template for writers wishing to locate the history of a specific gens within a broader framework.6 Indeed, this chapter will examine Historia Brittonum’s attempt to locate the history of the Britons in a universal and European context. Origo gentis can be connected to other types of historical writing too. Recounting the origins of a particular dynasty could serve to explain and/or legitimise a present order, as Plassmann’s discussion of the origin legend of the dynasty of Powys in Historia Brittonum illustrates.7 There are examples of origin narratives that lie somewhere in between. Such is the case with Asser’s Life of King Alfred. We would not class this text as an origin narrative. Nevertheless, Asser does show an interest in dynastic origins, starting his biography with a genealogy tracing Alfred’s ancestry to Woden (as was conventional in English royal genealogies) and, following Historia Brittonum, even further back to Geat.8 The remainder of the Life of King Alfred is arguably also an origin legend of sorts, presenting the origins of the kingdom that emerged under Alfred’s rulership and that encompassed all Christians of the island of Britain. It is recent, not ancient, history that is important here, but Asser’s account is nevertheless one of origins. The creation of this alternative origin legend will be the focus of Chapter 5, but for now illustrates once more the blurred line between the construction of an origin legend and the writing of history more broadly. More than anything else, these are points in favour of flexibility; flexibility when determining what exactly constitutes an origin legend in any given text. This is not to dismiss the categorisation altogether. Indeed, its usefulness is evident in the fact that so many origin legends – be they of gentes, dynasties, or kingdoms – share certain common motifs or tropes. David Henige identifies two elements common to most origin legends: genealogy and migration. In every origin legend the gens will have a founding ancestor from whom they are descended, and will undertake a journey from their place of origin to their contemporary location.9 Several more specific motifs are also prevalent in medieval origin legends, such as the existence of an eponymous ancestor, or the committing of a primordial crime.10 Susan Reynolds presented Ibid., 374–5. See above, 1. For an introduction to this genre, see Marsham, ‘Universal Histories’. There is some comment on the overlap between these genres on page 434. 7 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 102–6. Charles West notes that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries ‘origo gentis histories began almost imperceptibly to slide into dynastic historiography’ (‘Dynastic Historical Writing’, 498), a process that we see already in Historia Brittonum with the association between Cadell and the men of Powys. On the treatment of the inhabitants of Powys as a distinct gens see above, 44–6. For further discussion of this origin legend see also Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 446–52. 8 See below, 149. 9 Henige, Oral Historiography, 91–2 10 For an identification and discussion of the most common motifs see Plassmann, Origo gentis, 360–9. 5 6


Origin Legends I: the Britons

a tighter model still, observing that most medieval origin legends of the western Christian peoples contained at least one of three common elements: the interrelation of gentes through descent from Mannus/Alannus; the integration of gentes into a Biblical framework as descendants of Japheth, son of Noah; the provision of Trojan origins. As Reynolds pointed out, all three elements are present in Historia Brittonum’s origin legend of the Britons.11 Considering the widespread use of such motifs, there are clear benefits to a comparative approach. Not only were medieval writers asking the same questions about the origins of peoples, but their answers were also strikingly similar. In Historia Brittonum’s case, comparison with the origin legends constructed for the Franks in the Liber historiae Francorum and the Fredegar Chronicle is particularly productive as these texts all furnish their respective gentes with Trojan origins. The use of common motifs does not mean that all medieval origin legends were identical. Indeed, the origin legend of a single gens might vary across different texts, as seen with contrasting accounts of Frankish origins in the Liber historiae Francorum and the Fredegar Chronicle. As identities were developed, adapted, and contested, so too the origin legends that aided their construction.12 Any one writer may have been familiar with, and built upon, pre-existing origin legends – of their own gens and others – but they were engaged in a process of adapting such work to suit their own circumstances. As well as highlighting the commonalities, a comparative approach also illuminates this process. No origin legend was created in a vacuum, and thus cannot be understood without attention to a wider context. A comparative approach to these texts has been adopted to great effect by Plassmann in her study of the construction of origin legends across medieval Europe. Particularly relevant here is her examination of Historia Brittonum’s origin legend of the English, which identifies the use of a number of common tropes and provides specific comparison with certain other texts known to Nennius, namely Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae and Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica.13 Chapter 4 will consider Plassmann’s findings further, and bring Armes Prydein Vawr to the table, a text that may not be considered a conventional origin narrative, but nonetheless includes many of these common tropes. This chapter’s focus is the origin legends of the Britons in Historia Brittonum. Particular attention is paid to the parallels with other accounts of Trojan origins. The appearance of common motifs may not necessarily evidence the dependence of one text on another, but Nennius did draw heavily on a number of identifiable extant sources. The use and adaptation of this material will be examined in detail. At the heart of the origin legends of the Britons in Historia Brittonum is their relationship with the Romans. This relationship has its roots in Troy but continues to evolve after the Britons establish themselves in Britain; the Romans reappear on the scene, as conquerors and rulers. Roman Britain may not be part of Historia Brittonum’s account of the origins of the Britons per se, but its treatment in the text is key to understanding the role of the Romans in the origin legends. The second part of this chapter, then, will consider how Nennius depicted the Roman conquest and occupation of Britain.

Reynolds, ‘Medieval “Origines Gentium”’, 375–7. Reynolds, ‘Medieval “Origines Gentium”’; R. R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland… IV’, 16–20; Plassmann, Origo gentis, 374–5. 13 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 85–106. 11



History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

The Origins of the Britons A reader who goes searching for the origins of the Britons in Historia Brittonum will be spoilt for choice. Nennius provides several options, starting with the statement that Britain was so named after a Roman consul called Brutus.14 There follow two other explanations, combining three elements common in medieval origin legends: descent from Mannus/Alannus, descent from Japheth, son of Noah, and Trojan origins.15 Nennius tells us that Britain was first settled by a certain Britto, a grandson of Aeneas, born in Italy after the flight of the Trojans from Troy. Leaving Troy to one side, an alternative origin legend makes use of the other two elements. Nennius draws on a text called the ‘Table of Nations’ to place the Britons alongside other European peoples as descendants of Alanus, and claims that Alanus was a descendant of Japheth, son of Noah.16 An attempt is made to smooth over any apparent contradiction between these two accounts with a genealogy of Britto linking him to both Troy and Japheth.17 To summarise, as well as a reference to the Roman consul, we have two separate origin legends (each consisting of multiple parts), and a genealogy attempting to merge the two. Nennius does occasionally provide more than one possible version of events; treating his audience to at least two different descriptions of Gwrtheyrn’s death, for example.18 In Gwrtheyrn’s case, however, Nennius is content to let the two contradictory accounts sit side by side. For the origins of the Britons, he chooses instead to present a reconciling genealogy tracing the ancestry of Alanus (of the ‘Table of Nations’) through the female line to Ascanius and Aeneas, before connecting this line with Juvan, son of Japheth.19 The treatment of these two explanations of origins as linked is reinforced by the statement introducing the material from the ‘Table of Nations’: ‘aliud experimentum inveni de isto Bruto ex veteribus libris veterum nostrorum’.20 The account concerns ‘that same Brutus’; this is simply another dimension to the Trojan legend already related. As Nennius subsequently states ‘et redeam nunc ad id de quo digressus sum’, David Dumville has argued that he viewed the origins of the Britons as explained by the ‘Table of Nations’ the inferior of the two accounts.21 His creative attempt at reconciliation, however, shows that Nennius was unprepared This Brutus is referred to by Prosper and Jerome, sources with which we know Nennius was familiar (see below, 95–7): Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 106); Prosper, Epitoma Chronicon, §189 (ed. Mommsen, 396). Nennius refers again to this Brutus in §45, noting that the Irish came to settle in Ireland and in Dál Riata during the time when Brutus was ruling among the Romans, from whose time consuls came to exist. 15 Reynolds, ‘Medieval “Origines Gentium”’, 375–7. 16 Historia Brittonum here uses an Irish pedigree, see Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 13–14, 236–8. 17 Bartrum, Early Welsh Genealogical Tracts, 125, n. 18; Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 236–8; Higham, ‘Remembering the Romans’, 53–4. 18 HB (Harl.), §§47–8 (ed. Faral, III. 35). It is unclear whether the third version provided by Nennius should be considered as an additional dimension to the first account, or an entirely alternative account. 19 HB (Harl.), §18 (ed. Faral, III. 15–17). 20 HB (Harl.), §17 (ed. Faral, III. 15): ‘I have found another proof concerning that same Brutus from the ancient books of our elders’. 21 HB (Harl.), §19 (ed. Faral, III. 17): ‘And now let me return to that from which I have digressed’; Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 409–10. See also Wadden, ‘The Frankish Table of Nations’, 5. 14


Origin Legends I: the Britons

to dismiss this second origin legend, keen, perhaps, to outline both the biblical and classical inheritance of the Britons. The following discussion will consider both explanations for the origins of the Britons, beginning with that crafted using the ‘Table of Nations’. The ‘Table of Nations’ The ‘Table of Nations’ outlines the division of Europe into gentes. Alanus comes to Europe with his three sons, Hessitio, Armenon, and Negue. Each son is ancestor to different gentes; the Britons (along with the Romans, Franks, and Albans) spring from Hessitio.22 The ‘Table of Nations’ is likely a sixth-century text from Italy or Byzantium and survives in seven manuscripts excluding Historia Brittonum.23 The version used by Nennius is closest to that contained in Karlsruhe, Reichenau CCXXIX, but there are some elements unique to Historia Brittonum.24 Nennius includes a further generation (the sons of Hessitio, Armenon, and Negue), providing each gens with an eponymous ancestor. The Britons are thus descended from Britto, a son of Hessitio. Using the ‘Table of Nations’ enabled Nennius to place the origins of the Britons in a European context, a strategy that, as observed by Patrick Wadden, forms part of the text’s transition from universal to national history.25 More specifically, the ‘Table of Nations’ presents the Britons as equals to the Romans and Franks.26 That such a connection was attractive to Nennius is reinforced by the account of Trojan origins as well as the statement that Britain was so named after the Roman consul Brutus.27 The biblical dimension to Historia Brittonum’s adaptation of the ‘Table of Nations’ is also important. Through tracing the ancestry of Alanus to Japheth son of Noah and listing the sons of Japheth and their derivative peoples, Nennius gives the Britons divine legitimisation and a place in the history of salvation.28 Here Nennius takes his cue from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, which developed the account in Genesis 10 of the repopulation of the world after the Flood to list the gentes descended from the sons of Japheth, Ham, and Shem.29 This Isidorian framework for understanding the origins of peoples was hugely popular in the middle ages; the Turks, for example, claimed descent

Only in the Harleian recension is the fourth group of people the Albans, elsewhere they are the Alemmani. It has been suggested that this represents a reference to the inhabitants of Alba Longa (founded by Aeneas): Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 410. Nicholas Evans argues that the reference in the text of Historia Brittonum would have originally read Alemmani, edited to refer to the Albans (meaning the inhabitants of the kingdom of Alba) at some point between 857 and 912, see N. Evans, ‘Cultural Contacts and Ethnic Origins’, 11–17. See also Patrick Wadden’s examination of its usage across the different recensions: ‘The Frankish Table of Nations’. In the original ‘Table of Nations’ it is likely that the Britons was a reference to the Bretons, see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 441. 23 Goffart, ‘The Supposedly “Frankish” Table of Nations’, 150–60. 24 For discussion of the manuscripts, see Goffart, ‘The Supposedly “Frankish” Table of Nations’. 25 Wadden, ‘The Frankish Table of Nations’, 6. 26 Ibid., 5. See also Higham, ‘Remembering the Romans’, 52. 27 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 88. The significance of these connections is discussed further below, see 101, 119–20. 28 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 89. 29 Thornton, ‘Power, Politics and Status’, 41. David Thornton also notes that this list is found in Jerome’s Hebraicae Quaestiones in Libro Geneseos. 22


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

from Turk Yafeth-Oghlâni (Turk son of Japheth).30 Closer to home, the Irish were variously presented as descendants of Gomer and Magog, two sons of Japheth.31 Placing the Britons in a European and biblical context by using the ‘Table of Nations’ and Isidore’s Etymologiae is not particularly original or innovative. However, Historia Brittonum is somewhat unusual in presenting Britto as the culmination of every genealogy. No attempt is made to trace Britto’s descendants to the present day. This contrasts with the use of the ‘Table of Nations’ in the two manuscripts surviving from the Carolingian kingdoms, where it is sandwiched between two regnal lists, detailing the Roman kings of Gaul and the Frankish kings, respectively. In one manuscript, Dagobert I (ob. 629) is the culmination of the Frankish regnal list, but the other continues to the last Merovingian king, Childeric III, in the mid-eighth century, clearly illustrating the adaptation of the text to suit changing political circumstances.32 Helmut Reimitz suggests that this adaptation was an effort to integrate Frankish and Roman history; the kings of the Franks presented as successors to the Roman kings of Gaul.33 There is something to be said here about the function of genealogy in this section of Historia Brittonum. As already noted, David Henige’s deconstruction of origin legends pinpoints migration and genealogy as the two main recurring elements.34 David Thornton expands on this model, explaining that migration represented achievement through the acquisition of territory and genealogy represented ascription through ancestry.35 In other words, genealogy would connect the migrating founder to the dynasty holding the territory in the present day. This aspect is absent in Historia Brittonum. Britto certainly serves a contemporary purpose in illustrating the antiquity, and thus legitimacy, of the settlement of the Britons in Britain, but he is not here politicised by a ruling dynasty claiming him as an ancestor. The construction of origin legends in early medieval Ireland provides a striking comparison. John Carey notes that the most important component of Irish legendary history was genealogy, the anchoring of kindreds in a coherent framework of relationships which stretched back to their forefathers’ first arrival on the island.36

All Irish dynasties were depicted as descendants of the sons of Míl of Spain, and the legend itself underwent constant re-invention – such as increasing the number of Míl’s sons – in tune with changing political circumstances.37 Thomas Charles-Edwards has argued that the original purpose of the Milesian legend, which may have been under development from as early as the seventh century, was to explain the alliance between the Uí Néill, the Connachta, and the Éoganachta. Thus, the Uí Néill and the Connnachta were depicted as descendants of Éber son of Míl, while the Éoganachta, with whom the Uí Néill were more loosely connected, were descendants of Éremón, another son of Míl. These genealogies were subsequently developed as Thornton, ‘Power, Politics and Status’, 33–7. Ó Corráin, ‘Creating the Past’, 201–2; Ó Corráin, ‘Irish Origin Legends’, 64–7; Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend, 12–13. 32 Reimitz, History, 82–3. 33 Ibid., 216–17. 34 Henige, Oral Historiography, 91–2. 35 Thornton, ‘Power, Politics and Status’, 21. Migration is discussed further below, see Chapter 4. 36 Carey, ‘Lebor Gabála’, 32–3. 37 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend, 10. See also Ó Corráin, ‘Creating the Past’, esp. 202–3. 30 31


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the dominance of the Uí Néill extended further afield.38 For Gwynedd, the figure of Cunedda serves a similar function.39 Returning to Britto, the connection between people and progenitor here is non-dynastic. It is the gens as a whole – not any specific political unit or dynasty – that is linked to this founding figure.40 Historia Brittonum’s Trojans Historia Brittonum’s alternative account of the origins of the Britons is more extensive still. Britto was a grandson of the Aeneas, so the story goes, who had fled to Italy after the fall of Troy. Britto himself was exiled from Italy for the killing of his parents and wandered far and wide before reaching Britain. Certain elements of this tale can be traced to extant sources. As the first part of this discussion will illustrate, it is possible to reconstruct the sources used by Nennius in his account of Britto’s grandfather, Aeneas. With Britto himself we are in unfamiliar territory; this material appears for the first time in Historia Brittonum. Nevertheless, a comparative approach shines a light on elements of this account that also occur in other origin legends. A particularly rich source of comparison is the Trojan origin legend of the Franks, of which there were multiple versions by the ninth century. Aeneas’s activities in Italy take up a small part of the origin legend, with two distinct sections, at the beginning and end of the account. The first section explains: In annalibus autem Romanorum sic scriptum est. Aeneas post Trojanum bellum cum Ascanio filio suo venit ad Italiam et, superato Turno, accepit Laviniam, filiam Latini, filii Fauni, filii Pici, filii Saturni, in conjugium et, post mortem Latini, regnum obtinuit Romanorum vel Latinorum. Aeneas autem Albam condidit et postea uxorem duxit, et peperit ei filium nomine Silvium.41 In the annals of the Romans it was written thus: after the Trojan war, Aeneas came to Italy with his son Ascanius, and, having overcome Turnus, he took as his wife Lavinia, daughter of Latinus, son of Faunus, son of Picus, son of Saturn. And after the death of Latinus, Aeneas obtained the kingdom of the Romans or Latins. Aeneas moreover founded Alba and afterwards took a wife, and she bore him a son named Silvius.

Nennius claims to have drawn this account from annales Romanorum (‘the annals of the Romans’). This is the only reference to this source in the Harleian recension of Historia Brittonum, but there is a further reference to annales Romanorum in the preface in the ‘Nennian’ recension. This preface occurs in five manuscripts, but all are ultimately derived from Corpus Christi College Cambridge 139, quoted here: Ego autem coaceruaui omne quod inueni tam de annalibus Romanorum quam de cronicis sanctorum patrum (id est Ieronimi Eusebii Isidori Prosperi) et de annalibus Scottorum Saxonumque, et ex traditione ueterum nostrorum quod multi doctores atque librarii scribere temptauerunt. Charles-Edwards, ‘The Making of Nations’, 31–2; Wadden, ‘Theories of National Identity’, 72–3. For discussion of the earliest references to the sons of Míl, see Carey, ‘Lebor Gabála’, 34–6. 39 For discussion of this function in relation to Cunedda, see Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 72–9. 40 The origins of certain dynasties are given elsewhere in the text, see HB (Harl.), §§35, 49, 62 (ed. Faral, III. 27, 35, 42). 41 HB (Harl.), §10 (ed. Faral, III. 7, 9). 38


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales But I have heaped together all that I have found, as much from the annals of the Romans as from the chronicles of the holy fathers (that is, of Jerome, Eusebius, Isidore, Prosper) and from the annals of the Irish and Saxons, and what many teachers and scribes have tried to write from the tradition of our ancients.42

It seems likely that the individuals listed are the holy fathers whose chronicles are identified as sources used by Nennius, leaving ‘the annals of the Romans’ as an additional, separate source. This may not necessarily have any bearing on our understanding of the attribution of Aeneas’s story to the ‘annals of the Romans’ in the Harleian recension: there is uncertainty over the status of the preface, whether it is an original part of Historia Brittonum or a later addition.43 If the preface is a later addition, the compiler may simply have included a reference to annales Romanorum because this source is mentioned in the account of the Trojan origin legend.44 The flight of Aeneas to Italy is described in a number of Roman sources, including Origo gentis romanae and Livy’s Ab urbe condita.45 There is no evidence, however, that Nennius was familiar with these texts. Of course, Virgil’s shadow looms large. The basic events of Historia Brittonum’s account – Aeneas’s flight to Italy, his defeat of Turnus, his marriage to Lavinia, and his subsequent rule over the Latins – are all found in the Aeneid, a hugely popular text with which Nennius was likely familiar.46 Indeed, it has been suggested that he made use of Virgil’s Georgics elsewhere in Historia Brittonum.47 Nevertheless, there are other possible sources too: Jerome’s Chronicle, Prosper of Aquitaine’s Epitoma chronicon, and Isidore of Seville’s Chronica all recount the fall of Troy and the flight of Aeneas to Italy.48 Of these, Isidore’s Chronica falls at the bottom of the list as the account given is much briefer than that of Historia Brittonum itself.49 If Nennius used Jerome’s Chronicle, he may have drawn upon the text directly, or upon the works of other writers who themselves reproduced sections of the Chronicle verbatim. Bede, for example, quotes extensively from Jerome’s Chronicle in his account of Aeneas in De temporum Text in Dumville, ‘“Nennius” and Historia Brittonum’, 79; transl. Howlett, Cambro-Latin Compositions, 101–2. 43 See above, 11. 44 Thomas Charles-Edwards observes that the annales Romanorum is also cited as a source in the Collectio Canonum Hibernensis (compiled in Ireland in the seventh or eighth century): ‘The Arthur of History’, 16–17. In this text it is allegedly the source for the statement that there was a festival at the dedication of the Church of St Peter, for text and translation see Flechner, The Hibernensis, I. 450, II. 812. However, this source is also unidentified and there is no evidence that it is the same as used in Historia Brittonum. 45 Origo gentis romanae, §§13–17 (ed. Pichlmayr, 14–18); Livy, History of Rome, i.1–3 (transl. Foster, 8–17). For the transmission of Livy’s work in the middle ages see De Franchis, ‘Livian Manuscript Tradition’. Neither text is listed in Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library. 46 On the popularity of the Aeneid see Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library, 335–6. 47 Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 187. 48 David Dumville assumes the use of all three of these sources at some point in Historia Brittonum: ‘Textual History’, I. 122. Ben Guy has discussed the influence of Prosper’s Epitoma chronicon on the chronological calculations in §66 of Historia Brittonum and proposes that the Harleian Chronicle may have been designed as a continuation to the 445 edition of the Epitoma chronicon: Guy, ‘The Origins’, 41–2. For familiarity of these texts in England, see Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library, 302 (Eusebius/Jerome), 309 (Isidore), 328 (Prosper). 49 Isidore, Chronica, AM 4024–44 (ed. Martin, 54–7, §§95–6, 99). Where the date differs between the two redactions of the Chronica, I follow Martin’s ‘Chronica 2’. For discussion of the redactions see Martin, Isidori Hispalensis, 119–242. 42


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ratione, composed ca 725. We know that Nennius was familiar with the Historia ecclesiastica, and it is certainly possible that he had access to De temporum ratione, a text that was also used by the compilers of the Chronicle of Ireland.51 All references to Jerome’s Chronicle that follow will consequently be accompanied with references to the equivalent passages in De temporum ratione, with any divergences noted. Paul the Deacon’s Historia Romana, composed ca 770, is another source that includes a detailed account of Aeneas, drawn almost wholly from Jerome’s Chronicle.52 As will be discussed further below, there is no evidence that Nennius was familiar with Historia Romana. Comparison is nevertheless productive as these two writers likely had the same sources to hand, and yet created two accounts differing in detail. Similarly, bringing the Vatican recension of Historia Brittonum to the table enables the identification of later changes made to the narrative, resulting occasionally from the use of different sources, or as efforts to clarify ambiguities in the received text.53 A couple of statements in the first section of this Trojan origin legend are paralleled elsewhere. Lavinia’s genealogy (‘filiam Latini, filii Fauni, filii Pici, filii Saturni’) is recorded by both Virgil and Jerome, although in the case of the latter applied to her father, Latinus.54 Jerome does not, however, mention Aeneas’s defeat of Turnus, or his marriage to Lavinia. Paul the Deacon’s account is more extensive: 50

Capta igitur Troia, Aeneas Veneris et Anchisae filius ad Italiam venit, anno tertio post Troiae excidium. Cum Turno Dauni Tuscorum regis filio dimicans, eum interemit eiusque sponsam Laviniam, Latini regis filiam, in coniugium accepit, de cuius etiam nomine Lavinium oppidum, quod construxerat, appellauit.55 And so, when Troy had been captured, Aeneas, son of Venus and Anchises, came to Italy in the third year after the fall of Troy. Fighting with Turnus, son of Danus, king of the Tuscans, he killed him and took his betrothed Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus, in marriage. He also called a city which he had built, Lavinium, by her name.

This bears some resemblance to that found in Historia Brittonum, albeit with certain key differences. Paul the Deacon includes Aeneas’s parentage, and is more specific than Historia Brittonum in dating his arrival in Italy to the third year after the fall of Troy, a detail also found in Jerome’s Chronicle.56 Turnus’s parentage and status is not mentioned in Historia Brittonum, nor the building of Lavinium.57 It seems most likely that, in his account of Aeneas’s defeat of Turnus and marriage to Lavinia, Nennius was simply drawing on the Aeneid.

DTR, lxvi.367–72, 377–80 (ed. C. W. Jones, 474–5; transl. Wallis, 170–1). Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 446. 52 HR, i.1a (ed. Crivellucci, 7–10; all translations my own unless otherwise stated). For discussion of the composition of Historia Romana, see Goffart, Narrators, 336–7. 53 For discussion of the composition of the Vatican recension, see above, 63. 54 Virgil, Aeneid, vii.47–52 (ed. and transl. Fairclough and Goold, II. 4–7); Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 62b; all translations my own unless otherwise stated). In Bede’s case, the names are given in reverse order and presented as a list of prior rulers of the Latins: DTR, lxvi.370 (ed. C. W. Jones, 474; transl. Wallis, 170–1). 55 HR, i.1a (ed. Crivellucci, 7). 56 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 62b). 57 See also Aeneid, xii.194 (ed. and transl. Fairclough and Goold, II. 314–15); Origo gentis romanae, §13 (ed. Pichlmayr, 14); Livy, History of Rome, i.1 (transl. Foster, 10–11). 50 51


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The final statement in this initial section of the origin legend in Historia Brittonum concerns the building of Alba and the birth of Aeneas’s son: ‘Aeneas autem Albam condidit et postea uxorem duxit, et peperit ei filium nomine Silvium’.58 Both Jerome (followed closely by Bede and Paul the Deacon) and Prosper refer to the building of Alba, but in their accounts the architect is Ascanius.59 Interestingly, this is also the case in the Vatican recension of Historia Brittonum.60 No other source identifies a second wife as the mother of Silvius. In Jerome’s Chronicle, Silvius is the son of Lavinia: ‘Ascanius derelicto nouercae suae regno Lauinii61 Albam Longam condidit et Siluium Postumum fratrem suum, Aeneae ex Lauinia filium, summa pietate educauit’.62 Silvius is mentioned in the same context here – the founding of Alba Longa – but is said to be the son of Aeneas by Lavinia. Paul the Deacon repeats this account verbatim.63 The compiler of the Vatican recension again corrects the text, bringing it in line with Jerome’s Chronicle by stating ‘peperit Labina Aeneae filium nomine Siluium’.64 That the Vatican recension’s account includes two attempts at realignment with other known sources suggests that the compiler either had this material to hand, or was familiar enough with the tale to notice the oddities in his text. The second relevant section in Historia Brittonum is a calculation of the regnal years of the kings of the Latins which follows the account of Britto’s exploits: Aeneas autem regnavit tribus annis apud Latinos. Ascanius regnavit annis XXXVII. Post quem Silvius, Aeneae filius, regnavit annis XII, Postumus annis XXXIX. A quo Albanorum reges Silvii appellati sunt. Cuius frater erat Britto.65 Aeneas, moreover, reigned for three years among the Latins. Ascanius reigned for thirty-seven years. After him Silvius, the son of Aeneas, reigned for twelve years, Postumus for thirty-nine years. The kings of the Albans were called Silvii after him. His brother was Britto.

Aeneas’s reign of three years is also recorded by Jerome and Prosper, and the claim that Ascanius reigned for thirty-seven years may be an error for their thirty-eight years.66 All other sources refer to a single individual called Silvius Postumus, as opposed to Historia Brittonum’s presentation of two separate individuals: Silvius and Postumus. Jerome offers an explanation of his name: ‘Siluius Postumus, quia post mortem patris editus ruri fuerat educatus, et Siluii et Postumi nomen accepit. A HB (Harl.), §10 (ed. Faral, III. 7, 9): ‘Aeneas moreover founded Alba and afterwards took a wife, and she bore him a son named Silvius’. 59 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 62b, 63b); Prosper, Epitoma Chronicon, §98 (ed. Mommsen, 390; all translations my own unless otherwise stated); HR, i.1a (ed. Crivellucci, 7); LTR, lxvi.371–2 (ed. C. W. Jones, 474; transl. Wallis, 171). 60 HB (Vat.), §5 (ed. Dumville, 65; all translations my own unless otherwise stated). 61 An error for Laviniae, see HR, i.1a (ed. Crivellucci, 7, note (t)). 62 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 63b): ‘Having left the kingdom of his stepmother Lavinia, Ascanius founded Alba Longa, and most dutifully brought up his brother, Silvius Postumus, the son of Aeneas by Lavinia.’ 63 HR, i.1a (ed. Crivellucci, 7). 64 HB (Vat.), §5 (ed. Dumville, 65–6): ‘Lavinia gave birth to a son by Aeneas called Silvius’. 65 HB (Harl.), §11 (ed. Faral, III. 11). 66 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 62b); Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §§95, 96 (ed. Mommsen, 390). On the latter cf. DTR, lxvi.369 (ed. C. W. Jones, 474; transl. Wallis, 170). 58


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quo omnes Albanorum reges Siluii uocati sunt’.67 This divergence need not necessarily be an error: that Silvius was brought up by Ascanius after the death of his father would make no sense in the context of Historia Brittonum’s narrative. According to Nennius, Aeneas is alive during the pregnancy of Silvius’s wife, and takes an active interest in the unborn child, Britto. The treatment of Postumus as a separate ruler may have been an attempt to smooth over this inconsistency. There might also be another explanation. After listing the reign lengths of the kings of the Latins, Nennius states that Britto was ruling in Britain as his brother Postumus was ruling among the Latins. Treating Postumus as Britto’s brother enables Nennius to place the latter’s rule in Britain in a broader geographical context, and to stress further the connections between the Britons and the Latins. A desire to place Britto and the Britons in a wider, universal, context, is evidenced too by the accompanying statement that the priest Eli was ruling in Jerusalem.68 Nennius strikes his own path in his treatment of Silvius Postumus, but nevertheless echoes Jerome in claiming that the kings of Alba were called Silvii after Silvius. Both Paul the Deacon and Bede reproduce the deconstruction of Silvius Postumus’s name and use identical phrasing to Jerome in explaining the name Silvii (‘a quo omnes Albanorum reges Siluii uocati sunt’).69 Historia Brittonum’s statement is instead closer to that of Prosper (‘a quo Albanorum reges Silvii appellati’): both use appellati (as opposed to uocati), and neither use omnes.70 Based on these parallels, it seems likely that Prosper is Historia Brittonum’s source here. Finally, I can find no source for Historia Brittonum’s claim that Silvius ruled for twelve years, but it is possible that the thirty-nine-year reign given to Postumus is connected to the twenty-nine-year reign assigned to Silvius Postumus by Jerome and Prosper.71 Alternatively, Nennius might be mistakenly drawing on the regnal length of Alba Silvius, son of Aeneas Silvius (sixth king of the Latins) who is said to have reigned for thirty-nine years.72 Nennius was not solely reliant on Virgil, it seems. The listing of regnal years and the statement that the people of Alba were called Silvii after Silvius point to a dependence on Jerome (whether directly or through Bede) and/or Prosper. Nennius did not feel the need to be faithful to his sources, however. Unlike Paul the Deacon and Bede, who both mostly reproduced information from Jerome verbatim, Nennius was prone to paraphrase. There are some divergences, which may simply be errors – for example the calculation of certain reign lengths. Others, such as the creation of two rulers from the single Silvius Postumus, may have been deliberate. I have not discussed every such divergence comprehensively here: there is more to be said about Historia Brittonum’s identification of Aeneas, rather than Ascanius, as the Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 64b): ‘Silvius Postumus, because he had been born after the death of his father, and raised in the countryside, received the name of both Silvius and Postumus. All the kings of the Albans were called Silvii after him’. Cf. DTR, lxvi.378–9 (ed. C. W. Jones, 475; transl. Wallis, 171). 68 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 89. 69 HR, i.1a (ed. Crivellucci, 8); DTR, lxvi.378–80 (ed. C. W. Jones, 475; transl. Wallis, 171). 70 Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §99 (ed. Mommsen, 390): ‘from whom the kings of the Albans are called Silvii’. 71 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 64b); Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §99 (ed. Mommsen, 390); HR, i.1a (ed. Crivellucci, 8); DTR, lxvi.377 (ed. C. W. Jones, 475; transl. Wallis, 171). 72 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 70b); Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §112 (ed. Mommsen, 391); DTR, lxvi.409–10 (ed. C. W. Jones, 476; transl. Wallis, 172). 67


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founder of Alba. Key to understanding the significance of this statement is the most substantial part of this origin legend, the account of Britto himself, which is recorded for the first time in Historia Brittonum. Britto and the Britons The account of Britto contains a number of the common origin legend motifs identified by Alheydis Plassmann, including an eponymous hero, a migration, and the connecting of the gens to the Romans.73 It is worth quoting in full here: Silvius autem duxit uxorem, et gravida fuit, et nuntiatum est Aeneae quod nurus sua gravida esset, et misit ad Ascanium filium suum, ut mitteret magum suum ad considerandam uxorem, ut exploraret quid haberet in utero, si masculum vel feminam. Et magus consideravit uxorem et reversus est. Propter hanc vaticinationem magus occisus est ab Ascanio, quod dixit Ascanio quod masculum haberet in utero mulier et filius mortis erit, quia occidet patrem suum et matrem suam et erit exosus omnibus hominibus. Sic evenit: in nativitate illius mulier mortua est, et nutritus est filius, et vocatum est nomen eius Britto. Post multum intervallum, iuxta vaticinationem magi, dum ipse ludebat cum aliis, ictu sagittae occidit patrem suum, non de industria, sed casu. Et expulsus est ab Italia, et arminilis fuit, et venit ad insulas maris Tirreni, et expulsus est a Graecis causa occisionis Turni, quem Aeneas occiderat, et pervenit ad Gallos usque, et ibi condidit civitatem Turonorum, quae vocatur Turnis. Et postea ad istam pervenit insulam, quae a nomine suo accepit nomen, id est Brittaniam, et implevit eam cum suo genere, et habitavit ibi. Ab illo autem die habitata est Brittannia usque in hodiernum diem.74 Silvius, moreover, took a wife, and she was pregnant. And it was made known to Aeneas that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, and he sent a message to his son Ascanius, that he should send his seer to examine the woman so that he might investigate what she had in her womb, if it was male or female. And the seer examined the woman and returned. On account of this prophecy the seer was killed by Ascanius, because he told Ascanius that the woman had a boy in her womb: ‘and he will be a son of death, because he will kill his father and his mother and will be hated by all men’. Thus it came to pass: in his birth the woman died, and the son was nurtured, and his name was called Britto. After a great interval of time, just as the seer had prophesied, while he was playing with others, he killed his father by the shot of an arrow, not on purpose, but by accident. And he was expelled from Italy, and he was arminilis,75 and he came to the isles of the Tyrrhenian Sea, and he was expelled by the Greeks because of the killing of Turnus, whom Aeneas had killed. And he came as far as Gaul, and there he founded the city of the Turoni, which is called Tours. And afterwards he came to this island, which received its name, that is Britain, from his name, and filled it with his own descendants, and he lived there. And indeed, Britain has been inhabited from that day to the present day.

It is a challenge to keep a grasp on the relations between the different individuals in this account. Curiously, it is Ascanius who receives Aeneas’s instruction to summon a magus to examine Silvius’s wife. The compiler of the Vatican recension attempted Plassmann, Origo gentis, 88, 106. HB (Harl.), §10 (ed. Faral, III. 9). 75 The meaning of arminilis, of which this is the only attestation, is unclear: DMLBS, s.v. arminilis; Dumville ‘Textual History’, III. 673, n. 10. Mommsen reproduces a suggestion by Gutschmid that this is a corruption of ab Italiae terminis fugit: ‘Historia Brittonum’, 152, n. 5. 73 74


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to streamline the origin legend by making Britto the son of Ascanius.76 There may, however, be a link with Jerome’s Chronicle here, which states that Silvius was raised by Ascanius.77 It is possible that this prompted the role given to Ascanius in Historia Brittonum. The account of Britto is constructed in such a way that echoes the earlier description of Aeneas’s activities: Britto is exiled from Italy, as Aeneas was exiled from Troy. As discussed above, contrary to other extant sources, in Historia Brittonum it is Aeneas, rather than Ascanius, who founds the city of Alba. This may be deliberate: in casting Aeneas as the founder of Alba, Historia Brittonum foreshadows the actions of Britto founding the city of Tours. On Tours, Robert Hanning also highlights the interesting wordplay in Historia Brittonum: Britto is expelled by the Greeks because of the killing of Turnus (Turni) but travels to Gaul and founds the city of Tours (Turnis). In Hanning’s view, Britto is here freeing himself from his past, represented by the killing of Turnus, and establishing a new order, represented by Tours.78 Looking to Troy for the origins of a gens was not uncommon in the middle ages, and many writers pursued this avenue in relation to the Franks.79 The Trojan origin legend of the Franks is first recorded in the seventh-century Fredegar Chronicle, and by the time of Historia Brittonum’s composition there were several different versions in existence.80 The Fredegar Chronicle provides two accounts, attributed to Jerome and Gregory of Tours, neither of whom in fact connect the Franks with Troy in their own works.81 In the section attributed to Gregory it is claimed that the Franks departed from Troy under their leader Frigas after the city’s fall. They split into two groups, one settling in Macedonia, and the other, called Frigians after Frigas, proceeding into Asia. Another division followed, with one group, the Turks, staying on the bank of the Danube. The remaining Trojans, called Franks after their king, Francio, entered Europe and settled on the bank of the Rhine with their wives and children, and began building a city in memory of Troy. The account finishes by noting that the leaders that succeeded Francio as rulers of the Franks rejected the rule of strangers. For readers of Historia Brittonum, there is much that is familiar here: a migration from Troy, an eponymous ancestor, and the founding of a city.82 In the second section, attributed to Jerome, further detail is given on the Trojans who settled in Macedonia. They united with the Macedonians, the latter becoming a strong and warlike people through this relationship with the Trojans. The text also clarifies the relationship of the Franks and the Romans by claiming that Frigas and Aeneas were brothers. A specific example is given of the subsequent independence of the Franks, with an account of the failed efforts of Pompey and the Romans to exert authority over them. HB (Vat.), §5 (ed. Dumville, 66). Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 63b); HR, i.1a (ed. Crivellucci, 7). 78 Hanning, The Vision of History, 104–5; Hanning, ‘Uses of Names’, 329–30. 79 On the use of Trojan origins in Icelandic texts, see Faulkes, ‘Descent from the Gods’. An overview of the treatment of Trojan origins in sources from Britain in the medieval and early modern period is provided in Almaichel, ‘Brutus et les Troyens’. 80 Edmond Faral argued that the origin legend was the invention of the compiler of the Fredegar Chronicle: La Légende, II. 262–9. This was challenged by Wallace-Hadrill, ‘Fredegar and the History of France’, 535–8. For further discussion, see Innes, ‘Teutons or Trojans?’, 248; Yavuz, ‘Transmission and Adaptation’, 107–8. 81 For the sections attributed to Jerome see Fredegar Chronicle, ii.4–6, 8 (ed. Krusch, ‘Chronicarum’, 45–7). For the sections attributed to Gregory see Fredegar Chronicle, iii.2 (ed. Krusch, ‘Chronicarum’, 93). 82 Nurgül Kıvılcım Yavuz observes that building cities was a reoccurring theme in Trojan migration stories: ‘Transmission and Adaptation’, 144. 76 77


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

This origin legend stresses the superiority of the Franks at every juncture: they overcome and subjugate other peoples, they reject the authority of Rome, and the Macedonians become strong in war through union with them. This is not particularly surprising: it is common for origin legends to emphasise the bravery and warlike nature of a gens, and their superiority over other gentes.83 In the case of the Franks, there is also a preoccupation with their independence. The status of Frigas and Aeneas may be significant in this respect: the Franks and Romans are distinct peoples, related, but through descent from two brothers who are depicted as equals.84 Nurgül Kıvılcım Yavuz also points to the claim that the Franks travelled from Troy with their wives and children; unlike the Macedonians they did not mix with other peoples, and they continued to choose their own leaders, whether kings or dukes.85 Helmut Reimitz has suggested that this origin legend was a challenge to the work of Gregory of Tours, who had stated that he was unable to find any information relating to the first Frankish kings. The compilers of the Fredegar Chronicle countered this and sought to show that a governing class had always existed and had been the driving force behind the survival of the gens Francorum.86 There was a political purpose behind the presentation of the origin legend of the Franks in the Fredegar Chronicle, then, which in turn shaped their identity as a gens in a specific way. Although different enough from the Fredegar Chronicle’s account that is likely to have been an independent record, the origin legend as reported in the eighth-century Liber historiae Francorum is also concerned with Frankish independence and resistance to Roman subjugation.87 In this account, Aeneas fled to Italy after the fall of Troy while the other Trojan leaders, Priam and Antenor, went to Maeotian swamps.88 As in the Fredegar Chronicle, the Franks establish themselves alongside the Romans, rather than as their descendants. Rosamond McKitterick has argued that the text in fact presents the Franks as superior to the Romans: Aeneas is labelled a tyrant, and it is implied that the branch of Trojans headed by Priam and Antenor is the more worthy and legitimate.89 Relations between the Franks and the Romans follow a different route to the account of the Fredegar Chronicle. In the fourth century the Franks help the Romans to drive the Alans from the Moaetian marshes, and Emperor Valentinian names them Franks for their ferocity. As a reward for their assistance the Franks are exempted from taxation by the Romans for ten years. When Valentinian subsequently resumes their taxation, the Franks resist, but are defeated and flee to Germania, where they live under the rulership of Marcomir, a descendant of Antenor.90 This episode does not show the defeated Franks in the best light, but McKitterick stresses that they are again depicted as maintaining their independence. Defeated by the Romans, they nevertheless avoid being subjugated by them.91

Plassmann, Origo gentis, 365–6. Yavuz, ‘Transmission and Adaptation’, 140. 85 Ibid., 138, 146. 86 Reimitz, History, 166–74. 87 For discussion of the independence of the two accounts see Wallace-Hadrill, ‘Fredegar and the History of France’, 538; Wood, ‘Defining the Franks’, 51. 88 LHF §1 (ed. Krusch, 241–2). 89 McKitterick, History and Memory, 10–11; Dörler, ‘The Liber Historiae Francorum’, 29–31. Contrast with: Yavuz, ‘Transmission and Adaptation’, 163. 90 LHF §§2–4 (ed. Krusch, 242–4). 91 McKitterick, History and Memory, 11. 83 84


Origin Legends I: the Britons

The complex relationship of the Franks and the Romans as depicted in these origin legends is an interesting contrast to Historia Brittonum. Britto is a descendant of Aeneas; the Britons clearly belong to the same Trojan branch as the Romans. Plassmann observes that due to their reputation as successful state builders connecting a gens with the Romans was a popular strategy for conveying legitimacy in origin legends.92 However, the accounts of Frankish origins illustrate how the use of this motif could vary, and was frequently dictated by political context. For the Franks, the illustration of their past dominance was a means of justifying their contemporary military expansion, and the rejection of the authority of Rome underlined their independence.93 It may be, then, that there is more to unpack in the claim of Roman descent for the Britons in Historia Brittonum. The origin legends of the Franks stressed their military superiority, but for a gens who had suffered multiple invasions and no longer possessed the territory claimed by their eponymous ancestor, Nennius may have had something else in mind. Richard Waswo argues that the origin legend was intended to give the Britons cultural and historical equality with the Franks.94 Indeed, David Dumville observes that this connection would have been especially attractive in the ninth century, at a time when the Carolingians were presenting their empire as the successor to Rome.95 For Plassmann the emphasis here is on the superiority of the Britons over the other inhabitants of the Britain as the gens most closely connected to the Romans.96 There is more to the relationship of the Britons and the Romans in Historia Brittonum than the Trojan origin legend, however. What follows the description of the origins of the inhabitants of Britain and Ireland is a substantial section recounting the exploits of a series of Roman emperors in Britain. As already noted, the significance of an origin legend is frequently only fully revealed when the text has moved on to other matters. In Historia Brittonum’s case, an examination of the account of Roman Britain is key to understanding the relationship between the Britons and the Romans.

Roman Britain As with the Trojan origin legend, a number of extant sources left their mark on Historia Brittonum’s account of Roman Britain, illustrated by Ferdinand Lot’s survey of the material used.97 Despite drawing on these identifiable sources, Nennius Plassmann, Origo gentis, 361. Waswo, ‘Our Ancestors, the Trojans’, 273. Helmut Reimitz has discussed how this attitude towards the Romans was intensified in a Carolingian context. The extensive prologue to Lex Salica, the eighth-century recension of the Salic law, which stressed the independence of the Franks from the Romans, may have been in part a response to the groups challenging the political legitimacy of the Carolingians, including the Aquitaines, who referred to themselves, and were referred to by the Franks, as Romani. See History, 330–4. 94 Waswo, ‘Our Ancestors, the Trojans’, 275. Cf. Michael Clarke’s view that claiming descent from Aeneas served to illustrate the superiority of the Britons over the Franks as legitimate members of the Roman Empire, rather than invading barbarians: Clarke, ‘Leabhar Gabhála’, 466. 95 Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 408. 96 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 113. 97 Lot, ‘Nennius’, 54–62. See also the notes to Dumville’s edition and translation of this section of Historia Brittonum: ‘Textual History’, I. 184–97. 92 93


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

nevertheless produced a highly original account of Roman Britain. The purpose here, then, is to consider how Nennius adapted his sources and the impact of this adaptation on his presentation of the Romans and their relationship with the Britons in particular. Nennius continues to draw on the works of Jerome, Prosper, and Isidore, but Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae and Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica are also key texts here, the latter itself heavily reliant upon Orosius’s Historiarum adversum paganos libri VII. Bede also refers to the activities of certain Roman emperors in Britain in De temporum ratione. Comparison with De excidio Britanniae is especially productive. Gildas is not complimentary towards the Britons, claiming that it was known far and wide that they ‘nec in bello fortes sint nec in pace fideles’.98 The purpose of this negative characterisation is to draw the gens away from its current trajectory and back towards God.99 The Romans are an important part of this strategy. Their military might is a contrast to the cowardly nature of the Britons; the Britons cannot stand against the Picts and Irish without Roman help.100 Plassmann identifies a further reason for Gildas’s depiction of the Britons as dependent on Roman military assistance. Now that this support has been withdrawn, the Britons have no choice but to turn to God.101 Nennius was certainly familiar with De excidio Britanniae, and it is well-established that he was less critical of the Britons than Gildas in recounting their relationship with the Romans.102 The following discussion will consider further how and why he set about adapting De excidio Britanniae and his other sources. Historia Brittonum’s account of Roman Britain is structured around a succession of emperors, beginning with Julius Caesar’s invasion. The opening statement that the Romans sent messengers to Britain ‘dum acciperent dominium totius mundi’ echoes Gildas’s claim that the Romans had obtained rule of the whole world (‘cum orbis imperium obtinuissent’).103 However, Historia Brittonum’s claim that Caesar attempted to conquer Britain on three separate occasions, triumphing only on the third attempt, is unparalleled elsewhere.104 These invasions are described in some detail, in contrast to most other, less substantial, accounts. Isidore’s Chronica, for Gildas, DEB, §6 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 18, 91): ‘are cowardly in war and faithless in peace’. 99 For a more detailed discussion, see Plassmann, Origo gentis, 40–51. 100 Plassmann, ‘Gildas and the Negative Image’; Plassmann, Origo gentis, 50. Nicholas Higham similarly points to the (deliberate) contrast between the brave and virtous Romans and the treacherous and cowardly Britons, and argues that the implication in De excidio Britanniae is that, had Roman rule not collapsed (through the treachery of the Britons), the Saxons would never have managed to gain a foothold in Britain: The English Conquest, 19. 101 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 50. 102 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 466; Plassmann, Origo gentis, 91–3. 103 HB (Harl.), §19 (ed. Faral, III. 17): ‘when they were obtaining rule of the whole world’; Gildas, DEB, §5 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 17, 90). 104 HB (Harl.), §§19–20 (ed. Faral, III. 17). Plassmann raises the intriguing possibility that the inclusion of three battles might be a rhetorical device influenced by the popularity of the Welsh triads: Origo gentis, 91. Geoffrey of Monmouth develops Historia Brittonum’s account and quotes Lucan’s description of Caesar fleeing from the Britons (DGB, iii.62.229). Lucan does not provide any more information than this, however, and thus was not Historia Brittonum’s source (Lucan, The Civil War, ii.572, transl. Duff, 98–9). Cf. B. F. Roberts, Brut y Brenhinedd, xvii, n. 1: ‘Geoffrey was fortunate that Lucan seemed to confirm Nennius’s account’. For discussion of Geoffrey’s use of Lucan and other classical sources, see Russell, ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Classical and Biblical Inheritance’. 98


Origin Legends I: the Britons

example, simply states that Julius Caesar triumphed in Britain; according to Gildas, the Romans were able to subdue the Britons by threats alone.105 Orosius is the only writer to rival Historia Brittonum’s level of detail.106 We know that Nennius was familiar with Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, which follows Orosius’s account of Caesar’s campaigns in Britain closely, and thus even if we cannot be sure of his familiarity with Orosius, this narrative was certainly available to him. Yet he chose to present events differently. On his first attempt to invade Britain, Nennius states that Caesar was accompanied by sixty ships, contrary to Orosius’s figure of eighty.107 Of this campaign, Orosius simply notes that Caesar was forced by battle and bad weather to return to Gaul, whereas Nennius describes a battle in the mouth of the Thames against Dolobellus, the proconsul to the British king Bellinus, where Caesar’s fleet was shipwrecked. It may be that Historia Brittonum’s shipwrecking was extrapolated from Orosius’s reference to bad weather. However, it is an intriguing possibility that Nennius was familiar with Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum, which includes a fuller account of this first campaign and a specific reference to the destruction of his ships.108 Orosius and Nennius continue to disagree on the detail of Caesar’s second campaign: Orosius states that Caesar returned to Britain with six hundred ships the following spring, Nennius three hundred ships three years later. Orosius then relates two further battles not mentioned by Nennius. Both texts agree that the Britons placed iron stakes at the bottom of the Thames to thwart the Roman fleet, although Nennius refers to these as sudes ferreae (‘iron stakes’), in contrast to Orosius’s acutissimae sudes (‘very sharp stakes’). There is further disagreement over the impact of this tactic: Nennius claims that the iron stakes wreaked havoc on the Roman fleet, Orosius states that the Romans managed to avoid the trap entirely and proceeded to force the Britons to flee to the woods. This is not simply divergence over detail: for Nennius the Britons are victorious, to Orosius’s mind the Romans skilful. Both texts mention Trinouantum, but in Historia Brittonum it is the last battle between the Britons and Romans, whereas Orosius states that the town surrendered to Caesar, prompting the surrender of further towns. The two accounts have certain elements in common, but the differences are far greater. Lot argued that Nennius misread Orosius’s account, confusing Gaius Julius Caesar with Orosius’s Gaius Caesar (Caligula). This hypothesis is based largely on the appearance of a certain Bellinus (‘ipse Bellinus vocabatur, et filius erat Minocanni’) as king of the Britons during Caesar’s invasion in Historia Brittonum.109 Lot identifies this king as Orosius’s ‘Mynocynobellinum, Britannorum regis filium’, who Isidore, Chronica, AM 5154 (ed. Martin, 111, §233ᵇ); Gildas, DEB, §5 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 17–18). 106 HAP, vi.9.2–8 (ed. Zangemeister, 202–3; transl. Fear, 280–1); Bede, HE, i.2 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 20–3). 107 Orosius’s figure is drawn from Caesar, Bellum Gallicum, iv.22 (ed. Du Pontet, I; transl. Handford and Gardner, 98). 108 Caesar, Bellum Gallicum, iv.29–30 (ed. Du Pontet, I; transl. Handford and Gardner, 101). No manuscripts containing Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum survive in Britain from this period: Winterbottom, ‘Caesar’. There are, however, three twelfth-century manuscripts containing the text: Brown, ‘Latin Manuscripts’, 126–9. Moreover, Virginia Brown notes that many medieval writers, including William of Malmesbury, appear to have been familiar with the work: Brown, ‘Latin Manuscripts’, 113. See also William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, iii.239.2, iii.254.1 (ed. Mynors et al., I. 450–1, 470–1). 109 HB (Harl.), §19 (ed. Faral, III. 17): ‘he was called Bellinus, and was the son of Minocannus’.



History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

submitted to Caligula.110 Nennius divided the name Mynocynobellini in half to give the two individuals, Bellinus and Minocannus.111 Lot further argued that Historia Brittonum’s Dolobellus, proconsul to Bellinus, resulted from a misreading of a different section of Orosius, where Dolabella is named as the commander of Caesar’s fleet in Illyria.112 This proposed misreading is less convincing as this section of Orosius’s text has nothing to do with Britain. Even if the appearance of the British king Bellinus is the result of a misreading of Orosius, this only accounts for one difference in the presentation of Caesar’s campaigns in Historia Brittonum. It is likely, then, that Nennius was reliant on other sources. In some cases, the disagreement over detail may seem minor, but Historia Brittonum’s account presents the conflict between the Britons and Romans in an altogether different light to Orosius and Bede. These texts depict the Romans as militarily superior, easily overcoming the Britons in battle. In Historia Brittonum’s version of events the Britons show greater resilience. Plassmann also points out that Nennius dwells on the victories of the Britons in the first two battles but does not describe the victory of the Romans in the third. How exactly Caesar managed to conquer Britain is passed over in silence.113 This divergence from the accounts of Orosius and Bede continues as Historia Brittonum proceeds to its second emperor, Claudius. Nennius states: Secundus post hunc Claudius imperator venit, et in Brittannia imperavit annis XLVIII post adventum Christi, et stragem et bellum fecit magnum non absque detrimento militum, tamen victor fuit in Brittannia. Et postea cum ciulis perrexit ad Orcades insulas et subjecit sibi, et fecit eas tributarias.114 Second after him came Emperor Claudius, and he reigned in Britain 48 years after the coming of Christ, and caused great slaughter and warfare, not without the loss of soldiers. However, he was victor in Britain. And afterwards he went with ships to the Orcadian islands and subjected them to himself and made them tributary.

Claudius’s subjection of the Orcadian islands (the Orkneys) is recorded in Jerome’s Chronicle, although here rephrased by Nennius.115 The emphasis on Claudius’s own loss of troops is in striking contrast to what Orosius has to say on the matter. Quoting Suetonius, Orosius claims that Claudius gained control of the whole island within a few days without any battle or the shedding of any blood.116 His account is again

HAP, vii.5.4 (ed. Zangemeister, 242; transl. Fear, 328): ‘Mynocynobellinus, son of the British king’. In turn, deriving from Suetonius’s ‘Adminio Cynobellini Brittannorum regis filio’ (‘Adiminus, son of the British king Cunobelinus’): Suetonius, C. Caligula, §44 (ed. Ihm, 180; transl. Graves, 169). This Cunobelinus is also named in the Harleian Genealogies, see below, 112–13. 111 Lot, ‘Nennius’, 54–5. 112 Ibid.; HAP, vi.15.8, vi.18.6 (ed. Zangemeister, 212, 220; transl. Fear, 293, 302). 113 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 91. 114 HB (Harl.), §21 (ed. Faral, III. 19). 115 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 179): ‘Claudius de Brittanis triumphauit et Orchadas insulas Romano adiecit imperio’; ‘Claudius triumphed in Britain and added the Orcadian Islands to the Roman Empire’. See also Bede, HE, i.3 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 22–3). 116 HAP, vii.6.10 (ed. Zangemeister, 244; transl. Fear, 331). 110


Origin Legends I: the Britons

reproduced by Bede. According to Orosius and Bede, then, Claudius’s victory was quick and clean, but Nennius claims that it was difficult and not without casualties. Nennius continues: 117

In tempore illius quievit dare censum Romanis a Brittannia, sed Brittannicis imperatoribus redditum est. Regnavit annis XIII, mensibus VIII. Cuius monumentum in Mogantia apud Longobardos ostenditur: dum ad Romam ibat, ibi defunctus est.118 In his time Britain ceased giving tribute to the Romans, but it was given to the British emperors. He reigned for thirteen years and eight months. His monument is displayed at Mogantia among the Lombards: he died there while he was going to Rome.

The source for the statement that the Britons paid tribute to the British emperors rather than to the Romans is obscure. Plassmann suggests that Brittannici imperatores refers to those Roman emperors who stayed in Britain, and that the claim is intended to stress the ferocity of the Britons and their resistance to Roman subjugation, again offering an alternative to Gildas’s narrative.119 Claudius’s reign length is found in Jerome’s Chronicle, and the claim that he died on the way to Rome could also have been deduced from this source, which notes that he died in palatio (‘on the Palatine Hill’).120 Lot suggested that the reference to a monument at Mogantia is another misreading, this time of Jerome’s Chronicle, which states that Claudius’s nephew Drusus had a monument at Mainz (Moguntiacum).121 This passage on Claudius finishes with a reference to the conversion of Lucius, king of the Britons, to Christianity, likely drawn from Bede, with the Liber Pontificalis as the ultimate source.122 However, Nennius diverges somewhat from Bede here, stating that Lucius was baptised ‘cum omnibus regulis totius Brittannicae gentis’.123 In Historia ecclesiastica it is only Lucius who is explicitly stated to have desired, and received, conversion. This might be a deliberate adaptation intended to stress the universality of the conversion of the Britons, in spite of later appearances of un-Christian kings of the Britons in Historia Brittonum’s narrative.124 Indeed, that all the sub-kings of the Britons were converted simultaneously provides a striking contrast to Bede’s account of the piecemeal conversion of the English.125 Historia Brittonum’s use of Christianity in constructing the identities of the Britons and the English will be discussed further in Chapter 4. Severus is the next emperor: Bede, HE, i.3 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 22–5); DTR, lxvi.1041–6 (ed. C. W. Jones, 497; transl. Wallis, 198). 118 HB (Harl.), §21 (ed. Faral, III. 19). 119 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 91. 120 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 179, 181). Claudius’s death is not noted in DTR which might suggest that this was not the means by which Nennius was familiar with Jerome’s Chronicle. 121 Lot, Nennius, 56; Gransden, Historical Writing, 6. 122 Bede, HE, i.4 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 24–5); Liber pontificalis, xiiii. Eleutherius (ed. Duchesne, I. 136; transl. R. Davies, 6); DTR, lxvi.1164–5 (ed. C. W. Jones, 501; transl. Wallis, 203). 123 HB (Harl.), §21 (ed. Faral, III. 19): ‘with all the sub-kings of the entire British people’. 124 See the account of Benlli, for example: HB (Harl.), §§32–4 (ed. Faral, III. 25–7). 125 See, for example, Bede’s account of the setbacks suffered by the church on the deaths of Æthelberht and Sæberht: HE, ii.5 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 150–5). 117


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales Tertius fuit Severus, qui transfretavit ad Brittanos; ubi, ut receptas provincias ab incursione barbarica faceret tutiores, murum et aggerem a mari usque ad mare per latitudinem Brittanniae, id est CXXXII milia passuum deduxit, et vocatur britannico sermone Guaul. Propterea jussit fieri inter Brittones et Pictos et Scottos, quia Scotti ab occidente et Picti ab aquilone unanimiter pugnabant contra Brittones, nam et ipsi pacem inter se habebant; et non multo post intra Brittanniam Severus moritur.126 The third was Severus, who crossed the sea to the Britons; where, so that he might make the provinces that he had recovered better protected from barbarian incursion, he constructed a wall and rampart from sea to sea across the width of Britain, that is 132 miles, and it is called Gwawl in the British language. For this reason he ordered it to be made between the Britons and the Picts and Irish: because the Irish from the west and the Picts from the north used to fight together against the Britons, for they maintained a peace between themselves. And not long afterwards, Severus died in Britain.

The description of Severus building a wall to protect Britain from barbarian attack is paralleled word for word in Prosper’s Epitoma Chronicon.127 Jerome, Bede, and Prosper all report the wall as measuring 132 miles, although here again it seems likely that the latter was Historia Brittonum’s source. Prosper and Nennius both use the verb deduco to describe Severus’s actions, rather than duco, as in Bede and Jerome’s accounts.128 Prosper is also the only other writer to use agger to describe the structure; Bede uses fossa and both Bede and Jerome use uallum. Nennius again offers an alternative to Orosius and Bede in his framing of events. Orosius explains that Severus faced revolt in Britain and consequently decided to build a wall between the conquered and unconquered territories.129 Nennius explicitly states that the wall was built to stop barbarian invasion and proceeds to explain how the Picts and the Irish used to attack the Britons. We learn more about Severus in Historia Brittonum’s account of the fourth emperor, Caritius: Quartus fuit Karitius imperator et tyrannus, qui et ipse in Brittanniam venit tyrannide. Qui propterea tyrannus fuit pro occisione Severi et cum omnibus ducibus romanicae gentis, qui erant cum eo in Brittannia, transverberavit omnes regulos Brittannorum et vindicavit valde Severum ab illis et purpuram Brittanniae occupavit.130 The fourth was the emperor and tyrant Caritius, who also came to Britain in a tyrannical fashion. He was a tyrannical ruler because Severus had been killed, and, with all the leaders of the Roman people who were with him in Britain, he struck down all HB (Harl.), §23 (ed. Faral, III. 19). Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §763 (ed. Mommsen, 435). This statement is also recorded in Jerome’s Chronicle, but with securiores rather than the tutiores found in Historia Brittonum, Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 212): ‘Ubi, ut receptas prouincias ab incursione barbarica faceret securiores…’ (‘Where, so that he might make the provinces that he had recovered safer from barbarian attack…’). See also DTR, lxvi.1197–1202 (ed. C. W. Jones, 502; transl. Wallis, 204); Bede, HE, i.5 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 26–7). 128 Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §763 (ed. Mommsen, 435): ‘fossam et aggerem per CXXXII milia passuum a mari ad mare deduxit’ (‘he [Severus] constructed a trench and rampart for 132 miles from sea to sea’). 129 HAP, vii.17.7 (ed. Zangemeister, 257; transl. Fear, 350); Bede, HE, i.5 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 24–7). 130 HB (Harl.), §24 (ed. Faral, III. 19). 126 127


Origin Legends I: the Britons the sub-kings of the Britons, and greatly avenged Severus’s death at their hands, and seized the imperial purple of Britain.

The implication here is that Severus was killed by the Britons, hence the vengeance wreaked upon their sub-kings. Orosius, in contrast, states that the emperor died of disease.131 Nennius may have been drawing on a different source here, but he again grants a greater degree of agency to the Britons than Orosius and Bede allowed. The identification of Caritius as a tyrant might, however, be based on their accounts. Orosius and Bede report that the emperor Carausius, Historia Brittonum’s Caritius, allowed incursions from Franks and Saxons into his territory so that he could seize their plunder and keep it for himself.132 The notice that Caritius ‘seized the imperial purple of Britain’, is found in varying form in the works of both Jerome and Prosper.133 Historia Brittonum’s account of the fifth emperor, Constantine, son of Constantine the Great, is unparalleled in other sources. Nennius states that Constantine was buried in Caernarfon, as is known from the letters on his tombstone, and that he buried gold, silver, and bronze in the pavement of the city. It is likely that the tale derives from the existence of a Roman monument in Caernarfon bearing Constantine’s name.134 The emperor is also associated with Caernarfon in the twelfth-century Vita Griffini, which states that Gruffudd ap Cynan (ob. 1137) built a castle in the ancient city of Constantine, son of Constantine the Great.135 Next there is an account of Maximus the sixth emperor (§26), followed by Maximianus the seventh emperor (§27). The second part of §27, which recounts the exploits of a further two emperors, and §28 will be discussed further below. §29 returns to Maximianus tyrannus (‘the tyrant Maximianus’).136 Magnus Maximus, is the subject of all three sections (§26, first part of §27, §29) but divided into two separate emperors by Nennius.137 It is likely that this confusion derives from the use of different sources. Ben Guy has suggested that §27 (the seventh emperor Maximianus) is drawn from a source of Welsh provenance: this section describes the withdrawal of troops from Britain and their subsequent settlement in Brittany, an account deriving ultimately from Gildas. Guy proposes that Nennius may have misunderstood the abbreviated form Maxim (from Maxim-us, as evidenced in the Harleian genealogies) in his source, expanding this to Maximianus. His confusion would have been exacerbated if he were familiar with the earlier emperor Maximianus (r. 286–305). Guy further notes that outside §27 Nennius consistently refers to Maximus and draws on identifiable non-Welsh sources.138 There is one other reference to Maximianus at HAP, vii.17.8 (ed. Zangemeister, 257; transl. Fear, 350); Bede, HE, i.5 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 26–7). 132 HAP, vii.25.3 (ed. Zangemeister, 264; transl. Fear, 361); Bede, HE, i.6 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 26–7). 133 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 225); Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §939 (ed. Mommsen, 445); DTR, lxvi.1356 (ed. C. W. Jones, 507; transl. Wallis, 211). 134 Guy, ‘Constantine’, 8; Faral, La Légende, I. 212; Lot, Nennius, 59; Stevens, ‘Magnus Maximus’, 88. 135 Vita Griffini, §21 (ed. and transl. Russell, 72–3). For discussion of the Roman associations of Caernarfon, see B. F. Roberts, ‘Breuddwyd Maxen’, 306–7. 136 HB (Harl.), §29 (ed. Faral, III. 21). 137 For an overview of the treatment of Maximus in Welsh sources see Dumville, ‘Sub-Roman Britain’, 179–81. 138 Guy, ‘Constantine’, 6–7. 131


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

the beginning of §29: Nennius states that he will resume discussion of Maximiano tyranno (‘the tyrant Maximianus’) but subsequently calls the emperor Maximus for the remainder of the section. However, this supports Guy’s hypothesis as every piece of information after this opening statement can be traced to a source from outside Wales. To summarise, the account of Maximus in §26 and §29 is based on sources from outside Wales, while §27 draws on Welsh material and mistakenly refers to the emperor as Maximianus. The account of Maximus in §26 and §29 is primarily a patchwork of information drawn from Isidore’s Chronica and Prosper’s Epitoma Chronicon. §26 simply states that Maximus was the sixth emperor in Britain, from whose time consuls began to exist and the title Caesar was no longer used. Dumville argues that this peculiar statement derives from a change of source from Jerome’s Chronicle to Prosper’s Epitoma Chronicon, which reckoned by consuls.139 It is likely, however, that Nennius made use of the Epitoma Chronicon in his earlier account of Severus, and so this would not be his first encounter with Prosper’s work.140 The second part of this brief section concerns St Martin. The statement of the saint’s fame is paralleled in the works of both Prosper and Isidore, and the claim that Martin met with Maximus derives from the Vita Martini.141 Nennius returns to Maximus in §29 (although here erroneously called Maximianus in the first instance) and relates his career on the Continent up to his death in Aquileia. This account leans entirely on information recorded by Prosper and Isidore.142 As explained above, the account of the deeds of the seventh emperor Maximianus in §27 likely derives from a Welsh source of some sort. This section begins with Maximianus’s killing of Gratian (‘occidit Gratianum, regem Romanorum’), which is also recorded by Prosper and Orosius.143 We can be fairly certain that Prosper’s Epitoma Chronicon was not Historia Brittonum’s source here, however. When drawing on the Epitoma Chronicon, Nennius has a tendency to reproduce Prosper’s words verbatim.144 In this instance, Historia Brittonum’s statement bears no resemblance to Prosper’s lengthy and verbose account of the killing.145 Nennius may instead have drawn his information about the killing of Gratian from a Welsh source. Ben Guy Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 191. See above, 108. 141 Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §1175 (ed. Mommsen, 461); Isidore, Chronica, AM 5582 (ed. Martin, 170–1, §355); Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini, §20 (ed. Fontaine I. 294–9; transl. White, 152–3). See also Day, ‘Agweddau ar gwlt Martin o Tours’, 7. 142 Isidore, Chronica, AM 5582–5591 (ed. Martin, 169–73); Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §§1175, 1183, 1191 (ed. Mommsen, 461–2). 143 HB (Harl.), §27 (ed. Faral, III. 19): ‘he killed Gratian, king of the Romans’. Cf. Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §1183 (ed. Mommsen, 461); HAP, vii.34.9 (ed. Zangemeister, 282; transl. Fear, 387). Referred to as ‘Maximus’ by both Prosper and Orosius. See also Bede’s account, drawn from Orosius: Bede, HE, i.9 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 36–7); DTR, lxvi.1509–10 (ed. C. W. Jones, 512; transl. Wallis, 217). 144 See above, 108. 145 Compare the notice in Historia Brittonum with Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §1183 (ed. Mommsen, 461): ‘In Brittania per seditionem militum Maximus imperator est factus. Quo mox ad Gallias transfretante Gratianus Parisiis Merobaudis magistri militum proditione superatus et fugiens Lugduni captus atque occisus est. Maximus Victorem filium suum consortem regni facit’; ‘Maximus was made emperor in Britain by the insurrection of the soldiers. Soon after he crossed the sea to Gaul, Gratian was overcome by the betrayal of General Merobaudes at Paris and, fleeing to Lyon, was captured and killed. Maximus made his son Victor co-emperor.’ 139 140


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points to the inclusion of the same notice in the Harleian genealogies (occidit Gratianum, regem Romanorum) and a similar statement on the Pillar of Eliseg (occidit regem Romanorum), raising the possibility of a shared source.146 The remainder of §27 is an account of the settlement of Maximianus’s British soldiers in Armorica, leaving Britain undefended and vulnerable to the attacks of foreign peoples. This is based ultimately on Gildas, quoted here: Exin Britannia omni armato milite, militaribus copiis, rectoribus licet immanibus, ingenti iuventute spoliata, quae comitata vestigiis supra dicti tyranni domum nusquam ultra rediit, et omnis belli usus ignara penitus, duabus primum gentibus transmarinis vehementer saevis, Scotorum a circione, Pictorum ab aquilone calcabilis, multos stupet gemitque annos. After that Britain was despoiled of her whole army, her military resources, her governors, brutal as they were, and her sturdy youth, who had followed in the tyrant’s footsteps, never to return home. Quite ignorant of the ways of war, she groaned aghast for many years, trodden under foot first by two exceedingly savage overseas nations, the Irish from the north-west and the Picts from the north.147

Additional details are given in Historia Brittonum: Maximianus gave to the soldiers the land extending from Mons Iouis as far as the city called Cant Guic (Quentovic) and the hill called Cruc Ochidient. Mons Iouis is probably a mountain in the Alps, although the Welsh name Mynneu, which develops from this Latin form, was used for the Alps more generally.148 Cruc Ochidient appears to be a Welsh rendering of a Latin name, with Welsh crug (‘mound’) and ochidient as a borrowing from Latin occidentis (‘western’).149 Nevertheless, the sentiment expressed by Gildas remains: Maximianus is a tyrant whose actions led to the misfortune suffered by the Britons in subsequent centuries. Despite explaining that the Britons used to be without arms and were thus vulnerable to attack from the Picts and the Irish earlier in the text (§15), Nennius presents the Britons as defiant against the Romans. Julius Caesar only conquers Britain on his third attempt, Claudius’s success is not without loss to his own forces, and Severus is killed by the Britons. This heightens the significance of Maximianus’s actions: in the past the Britons had the means to defend themselves, now they are vulnerable to external attacks. Here the origin legend of the Bretons is also set out for a first time in an extant Welsh source.150 Further comparison with the Frankish origin legend in the Fredegar Chronicle is productive as it too outlines the division of a gens: after leaving Troy, one part of the group of Trojans from whom the Franks were descended settled in Macedonia. Despite establishing a connection between the Franks and Macedonians, the compilers of the Fredegar Chronicle also used this origin legend to stress their Guy, ‘Constantine’, 6–7. Gildas, DEB, §14 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 21, 93). See also Bede, HE, i.12 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 40–1). Bede provides a more detailed account, drawn from Gildas, in De temporum ratione: lxvi. 1521–6 (ed. C. W. Jones, 513; transl. Wallis, 217). 148 Bromwich, Trioedd, 138; Williams, ‘Nodiadau ar Eiriau’, 96–8. 149 GPC, s.v. crug. 150 The reviser of the Royal Frankish Annals, working in the early the ninth century (McKitterick, History and Memory, 4), mentions the migration of the Britons to Gaul: Annales regni francorum 786 (ed. Kurze, 73; transl. Scholz and Rogers, 63). Ermold the Black describes the conquest of Brittany by the Britons in a poem to Louis the Pious in 826x828, see Brett, ‘Soldiers’, 25. 146 147


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identities as distinct gentes, as well as the superiority of the Franks. Thus, while the Trojans who settled in Macedonia joined with the inhabitants of that territory to become Macedonians, the Franks travelled alone with their wives and children, maintaining a separateness from all other gentes.151 In this context it is interesting that Nennius stresses Maximianus’s refusal to allow the British soldiers to return ‘ad uxores suas et ad filios suos’.152 Here, as with the Macedonians in the Fredegar Chronicle, it is only the soldiers who settle in Armorica. This is further developed in the ‘Nennian’ recension, with a marginal addition explaining that the British soldiers cut out the tongues of their wives in Brittany to avoid the pollution of their language.153 The same story appears in Breudwyt Maxen Wledic, a Middle Welsh prose tale that was probably composed in its extant form in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century.154 Again we see the same preoccupations driving the construction of the origin legends of different gentes. This discussion of Maximus/Maximianus has necessitated jumping from §27 to §29, the final section of the text centred on a Roman emperor. Returning to the second part of §27 and §28, Nennius introduces a further two emperors with the curious statement: ‘in veteri traditione seniorum nostrorum, septem imperatores fuerunt a Romanis in Brittannia; Romani autem dicunt novem’.155 Nennius may claim that the seven emperors previously discussed are those remembered in British tradition, but he certainly drew upon sources from beyond Wales, including Jerome’s Chronicle and Prosper’s Epitoma Chronicon. He was familiar too with the accounts of these emperors in Orosius’s work, whether directly or as mediated through Bede. Nennius does, however, also include material not found in these sources, either developed from Gildas, or entirely unique to Historia Brittonum. The claim that these are the emperors remembered in British tradition is not entirely unfounded then: these emperors all appear in other known sources from beyond Wales, but Nennius often provides information that is additional, or even contrary, to these accounts. The Harleian genealogies provide some evidence for the existence of Welsh material concerning Roman Britain that could have been known to Nennius. This source also reports the killing of Gratian, as discussed above, and includes the sequence ‘Caratauc map Cinbelin map Teuhant’.156 Teuhant is associated with Tasciovanus, king of Catuvellauni (fl. ca 20 B.C.–ca A.D. 10) and Cinbelin is his son, the historical Cunobelinus (fl. ca A.D. 10–ca 40), who is described as Britannorum rex by Suetonius. Caratauc is presumably his successor, Caratacus (fl. ca A.D. 40–ca 50).157 The Old Welsh name Teuhant is of particular interest here as Tasciovanus is not mentioned in any extant classical source; the only evidence identifying him

See above, 102. HB (Harl.), §27 (ed. Faral, III. 21): ‘to their wives and to their sons’. 153 Mommsen, ‘Historia Brittonum’, 167, n. 1; Plassmann, Origo gentis, 95–6. 154 Breudwyt Maxen Wledic, lines 317–18 (ed. B. F. Roberts, 11). For discussion of date see B. F. Roberts, ‘Breuddwyd Maxen’, 311–14. 155 HB (Harl.), §27 (ed. Faral, III. 21): ‘In the old tradition of our elders, there were seven Roman emperors in Britain; the Romans, however, say there were nine’. 156 HG §16 (ed. Phillimore, 176). 157 Koch, ‘Llawr en assed’, 265–6; Todd, ‘Cunobelinus’; Todd, ‘Caratacus’. It is possible that the Bellinus referred to as king of the Britons during Caesar’s invasion in Historia Brittonum is a misreading (by Orosius and then Nennius) of Suetonius’s Cunobelinus, see above, n. 110. 151 152


Origin Legends I: the Britons

as Cunobelinus’s predecessor is his coins and the Harleian genealogies.158 Teuhant crops up again in Welsh sources, as Tenuantius in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s De gestis Britonum and as Tecvann in Gwarchan Kynfelyn in the Book of Aneirin.159 Considering Tasciovanus’s absence from extant classical texts, it seems likely that these references reflect the preservation of Welsh tradition concerning this British king. Even if such a classical text existed, John Koch has argued that the Welsh forms attested in these sources (including Geoffrey’s Latin name, which derives from Old Welsh Tehuant) can only be explained by oral transmission from British to Old Welsh.160 The preservation of material like this might be responsible for the unique elements in Historia Brittonum’s account of Roman Britain. What of the two additional emperors said to be remembered solely in Roman tradition? Of the first, Severus, Nennius simply states that he used to split his time between Britain and Rome, the latter the location of his death. The second is a Constantius who ruled in Britain for sixteen years before dying there. This Constantius is probably a reference to Constantius Chlorus, whom Prosper and Jerome record as dying in York in his sixteenth imperial year.161 Severus is more difficult to locate, but it is possible that Nennius misread Isidore’s Chronica here, the source for a substantial part of §29.162 Isidore notes that Severus (Historia Brittonum’s third emperor) took Britain by force, but unlike the other sources known to Nennius, does not record the building of the wall.163 This might have led Nennius to the erroneous conclusion that this was a different Severus.164 It seems likely that Nennius is here simply listing the names of the other two emperors found in his sources; in other words, they should not be treated as part of a chronological sequence. This is important in light of the statement following the account of Constantius: Hucusque regnaverunt Romani apud Brittones CCCCVIIII annis. Brittones autem dejecerunt regnum Romanorum neque censum dederunt illis neque reges illorum acceperunt, ut regnarent super eos, neque Romani ausi sunt ut venirent Brittanniam ad regnandum amplius, quia duces illorum Brittones occiderant.165 Up to this point the Romans had ruled among the Britons for 409 years. The Britons, however, cast off the rule of the Romans and did not give them tribute; nor did they admit their kings to rule over them; and nor did the Romans dare come to Britain to rule any more, because the Britons had killed their leaders.

Nennius does not view Constantius himself as the final emperor to have ruled in Britain before the uprising of the Britons. Rather, the Britons reject Roman rule after a total of seven emperors have reigned in Britain, nine if the Roman tradition is followed. The statement that the Romans ruled in Britain for 409 years is probably Koch, ‘Llawr en assed’, 269. Ibid., 266–7. 160 Ibid., 267–9. 161 Jerome, Chronicon (ed. Helm, 228); Prosper, Epitoma chronicon, §976 (ed. Mommsen, 447); DTR, lxvi.1373 (ed. C. W. Jones, 508; transl. Wallis, 211). 162 See above, 110. 163 Isidore, Chronica, AM 5406 (ed. Martin, 137, §283ᵅ). 164 Cf. Nicholas Higham’s suggestion that this Severus results from a misreading of Orosius: ‘Remembering the Romans’, 55. 165 HB (Harl.), §28 (ed. Faral, III. 21). 158 159


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

drawn from Bede, who synchronises the end of Roman rule in Britain with the seizing of Rome by the Goths.166 Historia Brittonum’s §19 to §27 is an attempt at a linear narrative of Roman rule in Britain, Severus and Constantius the only outliers to this chronological sequence. At the end of this narrative the Britons reject Roman rule once and for all. As discussed above, §29 returns to the subject of the emperor Maximus. What follows in §30 is a striking departure from the narrative already established. Nennius refers again to the killing of the Roman commanders (mentioned at the end of §28), this time providing further detail: Tribus vicibus occisi sunt duces Romanorum a Brittannis. Brittones autem dum anxiebantur a barbarorum gentibus, id est Scottorum et Pictorum, flagitabant auxilium Romanorum, et, dum legati mittebantur, cum magno luctu et cum sablonibus super capita sua intrabant et portabant magna munera secum consulibus Romanorum pro admisso scelere occisionis ducum, et suscipiebant consules grata dona ab illis, et promittebant cum juramento accipere jugum Romanici juris, licet durum fuisset. Et Romani venerunt cum maximo exercitu ad auxilium eorum et posuerunt imperatores in Brittannia et composito imperatore cum ducibus, revertebantur exercitus ad Romam usque, et sic alternatim per CCCXLVIII annos faciebant. Brittones autem propter gravitatem imperii occidebant duces Romanorum, et auxilium postea petebant. Romani autem ad imperium auxiliumque et ad vindicandum veniebant, et, spoliata Brittannia auro argentoque cum aere et omni pretiosa veste et melle, cum magno triumpho revertebantur.167 On three occasions the Romans commanders were killed by the Britons. The Britons, however, while they were being troubled by barbarian peoples, that is, the Irish and the Picts, would demand the help of the Romans, and when messengers were sent, they would enter with great grief and with dust on their heads, and they used to carry great gifts with them for the Roman consuls on account of the wicked crime of killing the commanders, and the consuls used to accept welcome gifts from them, and they used to promise with an oath to accept the yoke of Roman rule, even though it had been harsh. And the Romans came to their aid with a very large army, and they placed emperors in Britain, and, when an emperor with commanders had been set up, the armies would return as far as Rome, and thus they used to do alternately throughout the 348 years. The Britons, because of the oppressiveness of their rule, used to kill the Roman commanders, and afterwards seek help. The Romans, however, used to come to rule and help and to take revenge and, Britain having been stripped of gold, silver, bronze, and every precious vesture and honey, they would return with great triumph.

Gildas’s influence can be felt here, both on the events reported and the imagery used. Historia Brittonum’s depiction of the Britons approaching the Romans with dust on their heads, for example, echoes a similar description in De excidio Britanniae.168 Despite this obvious influence, in other ways Nennius departs completely from De excidio Britanniae. In particular, the structure of the two accounts is very different. Historia Brittonum’s narrative is cyclical: the Britons seek help from the Romans against the barbarians; the Romans install rulers in Britain and leave; the Britons kill Bede, HE, i. 11 (ed. Colgrave and Mynors, 40–1). See also Wallace-Hadrill, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, 15; Lot, Nennius, 62. 167 HB (Harl.), §30 (ed. Faral, III. 21–3). 168 Gildas, DEB, §17 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 22, 94): ‘scissis, ut dicitur, vestibus, opertisque sablone capitibus’ (‘their clothes (it is said) torn, their heads covered in dust’). 166


Origin Legends I: the Britons

the Roman rulers; the cycle repeats. In De excidio Britanniae there are two distinct episodes – the Britons betraying the Romans and the Britons appealing to the Romans for help – located at different points in the narrative. According to Gildas, once the conquerors had left Britain after Caesar’s invasion, the Britons revolted against their Roman governors. This prompted the return of the Romans, and the Britons immediately submitted due to their cowardly and unwarlike nature.169 The appeal for help against the Picts and the Irish is a later episode when the Roman governors have left, and Britain is more or less independent. Although answering the plea for assistance, Gildas notes that the Romans had not forgotten their past troubles in Britain, likely a reference to their earlier betrayal by the Britons.170 This linking of the two episodes parallels the pattern of betrayal followed by a cry for help seen in Historia Brittonum. A new pattern is subsequently established in De excidio Britanniae, however: the Romans help the Britons and depart, then followed by a resurgence of the Picts and Irish which prompts the Britons to seek help once more.171 There is no betrayal involved here. It seems that Nennius has merged these two separate sections of Gildas’s narrative. Thus, in Historia Brittonum’s case this pattern allegedly continued for 348 years, while the Picts and Irish only rear their heads after the departure of Maximus in De excidio Britanniae.172 Indeed, Historia Brittonum’s back projection of the threat of the Picts and Irish (relative to De excidio Britanniae) is clear from the account of the origins of the Irish earlier in the text, which finishes with the statement that the Picts and the Irish used to join forces against the Britons (§15). It may be that this adaptation of De excidio Britanniae derives in part from a desire to synchronise Gildas’s narrative with alternative sources. According to Gildas, the wall was built after the departure of Maximus, when the Britons appealed to Rome for help against the Picts and Irish.173 The wall is a reaction to attacks by the Picts and Irish in Historia Brittonum too, but Nennius chooses to follow the accounts of Prosper and Jerome in attributing its construction to Severus. In this context, it makes sense that the appeals to Rome for support against the barbarians reported by Gildas were occurring throughout the period – hence the building of the wall by Severus. Historia Brittonum’s account of Roman Britain consists of two main layers, then. The first layer is a description of the exploits of nine Roman emperors in Britain, drawing on known sources but also providing additional unparalleled information (§§19–27 and 29). In comparison with the works of Orosius and Bede, the latter certainly known to Nennius, the account of these emperors is kind to the Britons. The same events are frequently presented in a subtly different way. It is claimed, for example, that Claudius lost a great number of his own troops in subduing the Britons. Nennius does not deny that the ultimate victory belonged to the Romans, but stresses that the Britons put up a significant fight. This is a departure from Bede and Gildas, both of whom depicted the Britons as cowardly and unwarlike. Where additional Gildas, DEB, §6 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 18, 91). Gildas, DEB, §15 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 21, 93): ‘cui mox destinatur legio praeteriti mali immemor’ (‘a legion was soon despatched that had forgotten the troubles of the past’). 171 Gildas, DEB, §§14–20 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 21–4, 93–6). 172 Lot suggests that the figure 348 is reached by calculating the number of years from 409 (when Roman rule ended in Britain according to Nennius) to 61, the death of Claudius, during whose reign Nennius states that the Britons did not pay tribute to the Romans, possibly the first British rebellion to his mind: Lot, Nennius, 62. 173 For discussion of this aspect of Gildas’s account see Stevens, ‘Gildas Sapiens’, 356–60; Hustwit, ‘The Britons’, 187–8. 169 170


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information is given, Nennius may have been drawing on lost sources. Nevertheless, Historia Brittonum’s account of the Roman emperors in Britain is not out of line with what we glean from Bede or Orosius simply because of the information recorded; rather the presentation of this information leads to a different depiction of the past. The second layer is a summary of relations between the Britons and the Romans throughout this period, adapting Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae to depict their relationship as a relentless cycle of dependence and betrayal (§§28 and 30). According to Gildas, the Britons kill their Roman commanders on one occasion after the departure of Julius Caesar, and only much later (after the departure of Maximus) seek the assistance of the Romans against the Picts and the Irish. In Historia Brittonum these two episodes are linked in a cycle: the Britons betray the Romans, the Britons seek the help of the Romans, the pattern is repeated. Gildas’s narrative is also, however, adapted in subtler ways. In De excidio Britanniae, no reason is given for the killing of the Roman commanders; it is simply indicative of the treacherous nature of the Britons. Nennius, in contrast, explains the frequent recourse of the Britons to betrayal as a reaction to gravitatem imperii (‘severity of rule’).174 Gildas does subsequently refer to the oppression of Roman rule in Britain, but this is presented as a consequence of the treachery of the Britons, rather than its cause.175 For Nennius, the treachery of the Britons is entirely justifiable and a sign of their strength. This is not unusual: Plassmann observes that cunning and treachery are frequently presented as positive characteristics of protagonists, but negative when applied to the antagonists.176 Following their unsuccessful revolt against the Romans, the Britons of De excidio Britanniae accept the authority imposed upon then, reflecting, in Gildas’s view, their cowardice. The Britons of Historia Brittonum continue to betray the Romans, killing their commanders on three separate occasions.177 This again grants greater agency to the Britons, while also reflecting poorly upon the Romans, who do not exercise the same control over Britain and the Britons presented by Gildas. In De excidio Britanniae it is the Romans who refuse to grant further assistance to the Britons because of the strain on their resources; in Historia Brittonum they do not dare to return to Britain from fear of the Britons. Plassmann goes so far as to suggest that this pattern of co-operation and conflict presents the Britons as equals to the Romans, their parity of status further illustrated by the existence of usurping emperors in Britain.178 This feeds into a larger point about the presentation of the Romans in Historia Brittonum: their visits to Britain are fleeting and their connection to the island superficial. Gildas presents the Roman takeover of Britain as total; when the Romans return to subdue the revolt of the Britons, he notes that they acted ‘ita ut non Britannia, sed Romania censeretur et quicquid habere potuisset aeris argenti vel auri imagine Caesaris notaretur’.179 Nennius also refers to the gold, silver and bronze of Britain, but serving a rather different image to that of Gildas: HB (Harl.), §30 (ed. Faral, III. 23). Gildas, DEB, §7 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 18, 91). 176 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 366. See discussion of the role of treachery in the origin legend of the English below, 134–6. 177 The claim that this occurred on three occasions might be influenced by the Welsh triads, see n. 104 above. 178 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 91–2. Cf. Higham, ‘Remembering the Romans’, 55. 179 Gildas, DEB, §7 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 18, 91): ‘so that the island should be rated not as Britannia but as Romania, and all its bronze, silver and gold should be stamped with the image of Caesar’. 174 175


Origin Legends I: the Britons Romani autem ad imperium auxiliumque et ad vindicandum veniebant et, spoliata Brittannia auro argentoque cum aere et omni pretiosa veste et melle, cum magno triumpho revertebantur.180 The Romans, however, used to come to rule and help and to take revenge and, Britain having been stripped of gold, silver, bronze, and every precious vesture and honey, they would return with great triumph.

The Romans do not stay in Britain and attempt to impose Roman customs upon the island. Rather, they plunder and leave.181 The relationship between the Romans and Britons is thus presented as far more consistently antagonistic in Historia Brittonum than in De excidio Britanniae. The Britons may be reliant upon the assistance of the Romans against the Picts and the Irish, but they rally against the severity of Roman rule. Historia Brittonum’s Britons are not as passive as Gildas suggests, but nor is the control of the Romans as absolute. According to Nennius, the Romans do not choose to leave Britain, but are forced to do so. In the end they are simply unsuccessful conquerors. According to Historia Brittonum, the Britons are related to the Romans, a successful empire-building gens, and this fact is to be celebrated and loudly proclaimed. However, leaving the Trojan origin legend that establishes this common ground behind, the Britons develop a history and identity of their own. In this context, the Romans are clearly a separate people who have no right to the island of Britain. There may be greater common ground here with the Trojan origin legend of the Franks in the Fredegar Chronicle than previously realised. As discussed above, despite noting the shared kinship of the Romans and Franks, the Fredegar Chronicle nonetheless stressed the superiority of the Franks as a distinct gens. It is possible that Nennius was pursuing a similar strategy. The Britons’ origin legend may bind them to the Romans, but the account of Roman Britain underlines their separateness. Crucial also is the status of the Britons in Historia Brittonum as the first inhabitants of Britain. Whatever their prior connection to the Britons, when the Romans arrive in Britain, they are simply one of a series of invading peoples who try to wrest Britain from its rightful inhabitants. It is probable that Nennius was aware of the alleged Trojan origins of the Franks and that this contributed to his decision to travel in the same direction in search of the origins of the Britons. Of relevance in this context is the suggestion that the Irish origin legend as recounted in Lebor Gabála was influenced by the Frankish material. Both Michael Clarke and John Carey have drawn attention to the origin legend’s claim that the Irish spent some time in the Maeotic marshes, chiming with the experience of the Franks as related in the Liber historiae Francorum.182 It is not implausible that Nennius also had an eye on this material. Plassmann cautions that the use of common motifs does not necessarily evidence the direct influence of one text upon another; two authors might simply have decided to use the same scheme, the committing of a primordial crime, for example, to explain the origins of their different gentes.183 In Historia Brittonum’s case, however, certain elements of the origin legend of the Britons are demonstrably informed by Continental material – such as HB (Harl.), §30 (ed. Faral, III. 23). Cf. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 442. 182 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend, 15–16; Clarke, ‘Leabhar Gabhála’, 467–8. 183 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 374. 180 181


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

the ‘Table of Nations’ – and the account of Aeneas is carefully crafted from a number of different sources. In this context it is highly likely that the Trojan origin legends of the Franks were also influential. Thomas Charles-Edwards describes Historia Brittonum’s origin legend as ‘presumably a borrowing from Francia via Brittany’.184 As Nennius is the first to record this origin legend, establishing its development and transmission prior to Historia Brittonum’s composition is probably impossible. Nevertheless, this route is a serious possibility – Historia Brittonum does, after all, also include an origin legend of the Bretons.185 Supposing a transmission via Brittany would have significant implications for our understanding of its preoccupations. The relationship between the Bretons and the Gallo-Romans is important here, for which we can turn to the evidence of the First Life of St Samson, composed at Dol in Brittany probably in the late-seventh century.186 In particular, there are three references to Romania in the text.187 On two occasions the author refers to St Samson’s activities in Britannia ac Romania (‘in Brittany and Romania’), and specifies in the prologue that both are located ‘on this side of the sea’ (citra mare).188 Elsewhere, Samson is said to have been at his house in Romania.189 This house is identified as Pennetale in the Second Life, composed, also at Dol, in the ninth century.190 In the First Life of St Samson, then, Brittany’s neighbour to the east was called Romania. Indeed, Thomas Charles-Edwards suggests that, prior to the seventh century, Romania may have been the name commonly used for this territory.191 From the late seventh century this ceased to be the case: Francia now extended as far as the Breton border. Thus, in the Second Life all references to Romania were omitted.192 This coincided with a redefinition of Romanitas. The Britons – of Britain and Brittany – were increasingly ostracised for their failure to conform to the religious practices of Rome, especially the celebration of Roman Easter. On this basis, they could be paired with the Irish as un-Roman.193 Charles-Edwards observes that on the Continent, this shift in perception was also facilitated by the political unification of the Gallo-Romans – the inhabitants of Romania – with the Franks.194 This context sheds further light on Historia Brittonum’s narrative. On the one hand, there is a re-assertion of the relationship between the Britons and Rome: they are very clearly the descendants of Aeneas, and their own conversion, directly from

Charles-Edwards, ‘Celtic Britain and Ireland’, 155–6. See also Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 408; Miller, ‘Matriliny by Treaty’, 135. 185 See above, 111–12. 186 Sowerby, ‘The Lives’, 14–23; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 239, n. 58. 187 Vita Prima Samsonis, prologue 2, i.60, i.61 (ed. and transl. Flobert, 142–3, 232–5). I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to this point. 188 Vita Prima Samsonis, prologue 2, i.61 (ed. and transl. Flobert, 142–3, 234–5). The Vita was composed at Dol in Brittany and thus citra mare refers to the Continent. Elsewhere, ultra mare is used for Britain: Olson, ‘Introduction’, 6. 189 Vita Prima Samsonis, i.61 (ed. and transl. Flobert, 232–3). 190 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 238; Sowerby, ‘The Lives’, 23, n. 116. On the composition of the second Life, see Sowerby, ‘The Lives’, 12–14. 191 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 238–9. Cf. Richard Sowerby’s interpretation of Romania in the Vita Prima Samsonis as referring to ‘the Frankish parts of Europa’: ‘The Lives’, 23, n. 116. 192 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 239. 193 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 239–41. 194 Ibid. 184


Origin Legends I: the Britons

Rome, is also emphasised. However Roman-ness might be redefined, Nennius offers an emphatic statement of the Roman identity of the Britons, their Trojan origins establishing equality with the Franks and superiority over the English.196 Nennius nevertheless also clearly separates the Britons and the Romans into distinct gentes, the latter having no legitimate claim to the island of Britain. Significant here is Robert Hanning’s interpretation, discussed above, of Britto’s founding of the city of Tours. In his view, this foundation symbolised a new beginning for the eponymous ancestor of the Britons, as he turned his back on the old world, the Roman world, represented by the killing of Turnus.197 Within the origin legend itself, a separate identity is being emphasised. Such a distinction may have been especially important to the Bretons as it also set them apart from their neighbours, the Gallo-Romans and Franks. As noted above, a Breton role in the transmission of the Frankish origin legend, and the construction of an origin legend for the Britons, is impossible to prove. Nevertheless, the Breton context is useful in illustrating how this particular view of the relationship between the Britons and Romans might have gained currency. Ultimately, however, it is Nennius who must be held responsible. Whatever the pre-history of the origin legend, this material was incorporated and developed in Historia Brittonum, alongside an account of Roman Britain, to present the origins of the Britons in a specific way. 195

Conclusions Lying behind Historia Brittonum’s origin legend of the Britons is a wider dialogue on origo gentis. Nennius may have been the first writer to set out the origins of the Britons, but he was not the first to look to Troy for legitimisation. Nor was this origin legend a wholly original piece of work: the influence of a range of texts can be detected. This was not simply a process of reproducing information verbatim, however. Rather, the origin legend of the Britons makes use of several common motifs, as well as showcasing many of the same themes and preoccupations as its continental counterparts. We can trace certain pieces of information back to the works of Jerome and Prosper, but what is perhaps of greater significance is his presentation of an origin legend that ticks many of the same boxes as the origin legends of the Franks in the Fredegar Chronicle and the Liber historiae Francorum. The origin legend of the Britons is not simply a revised version of this material, however; Nennius has his own preoccupations. The Britons were the first to inhabit Britain and were thereafter embroiled in constant conflict with successive invaders. Thus, although the Trojan origin legend establishes the close relationship of the Britons and Romans, Historia Brittonum’s account of Roman Britain stresses the identity of the latter as illegitimate invaders. Nennius chose to depart from the vast number of sources at his disposal in fashioning his account of Roman Britain, stressing instead the resistance to Roman occupation. In Historia Brittonum, the Romans are never truly able to wrest control of the island. This account may have

On Historia Brittonum’s account of the conversion of the Britons, see below, 144–5. For the case that Nennius sought to present the Britons and Franks as equals, see also Waswo, ‘Our Ancestors the Trojans’, 273; Clarke, ‘Leabhar Gabhála’, 466; Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 408. 197 Hanning, The Vision of History, 104–5; Hanning, ‘Uses of Names’, 329–30. 195 196


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

been informed by Welsh sources, but Nennius also bends the work of writers such as Orosius and Gildas to provide a different perspective on the distant past. There are multiple facets to Historia Brittonum’s presentation of the Romans. They appear in various guises in the narrative, as ancestors and legitimisers, as bearers of Christianity, but also as unjust invaders and conquerors. In each case, their appearance plays a role in the construction of an identity for the Britons. As discussed above, equality with the Franks was one outcome, bolstered further by the inclusion of the ‘Table of Nations’. Likely more important, however, is the granting of cultural and historical superiority over the other inhabitants of Britain. Their Trojan origins provides historical superiority, as does their status as the first inhabitants of the island of Britain. But their relationship with the Romans is a significant part of the case for cultural superiority. While the Romans may only have been fleeting visitors to Britain in Historia Brittonum, the Britons were converted to Christianity by an embassy sent by the emperor and the pope. The situation of the Britons vis à vis their neighbours is important here, then, and it is to the account of these neighbours’ origins that Chapter 4 turns.



From the outset, Historia Brittonum establishes that Britain is an island of four gentes (§8). But it was not always so. Each gens ultimately came from elsewhere, reaching the island at different points in its history. The Britons were first, having journeyed from Troy via Italy and Tours, as discussed in the previous chapter. The Picts and the Irish came next, followed by the Romans for a passing visit. It was only much later that the Saxons arrived. This is not simply a chronological framework for understanding the settlement of Britain in Historia Brittonum: it is a key part of the identity of each gens as presented in the text. The chronology of migration and settlement is central to Armes Prydein too, not only as a means of interpreting the past, but also a way of dictating the future. In short, some migrations are more legitimate than others. It is not simply the timing of settlement that is important, however, but also the manner through which land is obtained. The poet of Armes Prydein, for example, dwells on the treacherous methods used by the Saxons to seize the island from the Britons. Nennius outlines the origins and settlement of all three gentes and, as with the Trojan origin legend, these accounts construct the identity of their subjects in a specific way. There are clear implications too for the identity of the Britons, who are defined in relation to – and through interaction with – their neighbours. The settlement of the Saxons in particular is a long-drawn-out affair, involving conflict, co-operation, and treachery, and there is a need for flexibility in defining its parameters – certain origin legend motifs only occur quite late in the narrative. This chapter will examine this origin legend but will consider too Historia Brittonum’s account of relations between the Britons and the Saxons in the sixth and seventh centuries in the ‘Northern History’; as with Roman Britain and the Trojan origin legend, this is an illuminating additional context. The discussion begins, however, with those who arrived first: the Picts and the Irish.

The Picts and the Irish Historia Brittonum provides an extensive account of the origins of the Irish, containing several common origin legend motifs, including migration by an exiled ancestor. There is a general consensus that this represents one stage in the development of the material that would eventually be brought together in the eleventh century as Lebor Gabála Érenn. Historia Brittonum is the oldest narrative account of this Irish origin legend, but fragments of evidence from the seventh and eighth centuries illustrate


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

the prior development of the tale.1 Nennius provides two different accounts of Irish origins: §13 relates successive waves of migration from Spain; §15 tracks the journey of a Scythian nobleman and his followers from Egypt to Spain and eventually to Ireland. This account of an exiled progenitor wandering far and wide before reaching his final destination bears some similarity to the origin legend of the Britons. As noted by Plassmann, the chronological anchoring of the origin legend with reference to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, as well as the conflict between the Scythian nobleman and the Egyptians, places the Irish in the context of salvation history.2 Nennius employed a similar strategy in the origin legend of the Britons as Britto’s rule in Britain was synchronised with that of the priest Eli in Jerusalem.3 Scythia as the ultimate origin of the Irish may have been influenced, it has been suggested, by Isidore’s description of Spain as the ‘mother of races’ in his history of the Goths.4 The origin legend in §13 presents the settlement of Ireland as a lengthy process undertaken in several stages. After the first migration of Partholomus the population is wiped out by a pestilence, while the instigator of the second migration, Nimeth, eventually returns to Spain with his people. Ireland is then populated by a ship of thirty men and women, although Nennius also notes that little by little people continued to arrive from Spain, the last being a certain Damhoctor.5 In an Irish context, there would have been a reason for structuring this origin legend around successive migrations. Dumville lists a number of likely functions, including to explain the difference between certain groups within the gens and to provide evidence of pre-Gaelic settlement.6 Nevertheless, in the context of Historia Brittonum specifically, there is an important contrast with the Britons. Unlike the unproblematic settlement of Britto in Britain, the migration of the Irish is a long-drawn-out process, and their initial arrival is not necessarily significant. There is a similar contrast with the Saxons, whose settlement in Britain is explained as the outcome of multiple waves of migration (§38 and §§44–5). Nennius did not invent the Irish origin legend, but its presentation in Historia Brittonum is shaped to reinforce the identity of the Britons as the legitimate inhabitants of Britain. Relevant here is Alheydis Plassmann’s interpretation of the account of Irish settlement in Britain itself. After describing the inhabiting of Ireland, Nennius notes that Istoreth son of Istorinus settled in Dál Riata, Builc settled in the Isle of Man, and the sons of Líathán settled in Dyfed before Cunedda expelled the Irish from all British regions.7 Nennius refers again to Irish settlement in Dál Riata in §15, stating that the Irish came to Ireland and Dál Riata when Brutus was consul among the Romans. Plassmann points out that the settlement of the Irish in these regions is simply stated and not described in any detail. Common origin legend motifs are absent; there is no talk of an eponymous ancestor or an account of how the territory was won.8 Crucially, Nennius did not lack the knowledge to provide greater detail: Carey, A New Introduction, 1–3; Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend, 9–11; Van Hamel, ‘On Lebor Gabála’, 124–6. 2 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 94–5. 3 See above, 99. 4 Carey, The Irish National Origin-Legend, 12. 5 Dumville observes that ‘Damhoctor’ is likely a misunderstanding of Old Irish dám (h)octair ‘a company of eight men’: ‘Textual History’, I. 174. 6 Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 426–7. 7 HB (Harl.), §14 (ed. Faral, III. 13). See discussion in Chapter 1, above, 26–8. 8 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 94. 1


Origin Legends II: Legitimate and Illegitimate Migration

he had access to Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica which includes an account of Irish settlement in Dál Riata.9 Instead, Plassmann argues that the brevity of the narrative is deliberate and serves to weaken the connection between the Irish and their land in Britain. This in turn explains and justifies their expulsion by Cunedda from certain territories.10 That the account of Irish settlement in Britain follows hot on the heels of the origin legend outlining two unsuccessful attempts to settle Ireland stresses the point that such temporary settlement is not unusual. The most important plank in the case for the historical superiority of the Britons over the other inhabitants of Britain is the chronology of migration. According to Historia Brittonum, Britain was empty before the arrival of the Britons. The other gentes that came to occupy the island only arrived much later. It was not unusual for medieval origin legends to stress both the antiquity of a people’s origins and the antiquity of their settlement in a given territory, a strategy that Patrick Geary has highlighted as retaining importance in the construction of modern-day nationalisms.11 Migration is a common origin legend motif, but the origin legends of the Britons and the Irish in Historia Brittonum are somewhat unusual in depicting the two islands as uninhabited prior to the migration of these gentes. In many other origin legends, the previous inhabitants of the territory need to be defeated before the new order can be established.12 Victory is used to illustrate the superiority of the gens and to legitimise their settlement. Historia Brittonum’s case is somewhat different; here it is the status of the Britons as the first inhabitants in Britain that is important. That Nennius chose to focus on this aspect of the origin legend is unsurprising: if victory in battle conveys legitimacy, then according to Historia Brittonum’s narrative Britain rightfully belongs to the Saxons. Nennius emphasises the status of the Britons by providing a relative chronology of the settlement of the gentes of Britain and Ireland. After Britto and the Britons, the Picts were next to arrive (‘post intervallum multorum annorum, non minus octigentorum’), settling in Orkney and proceeding to conquer many regions in northern Britain.13 This follows Gildas, who notes that the Picts seized the northernmost part of the island from its inhabitants.14 Bede, in contrast, states that the Picts occupied the north of Britain because the Britons had seized the southern regions, implying that there was no prior Brittonic settlement in the north.15 Nennius proceeds to relate the Bede, HE, i.1 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 18–19). Plassmann, Origo gentis, 94. 11 Geary, The Myth of Nations, 8, 11–12. 12 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 360–1. Compare, for example, with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, which relates that Britain was inhabited by giants before the arrival of the Britons: DGB, i.21.453–4 (ed. and transl. Reeve and Wright, 26–7). Regarding Ireland, in other versions of the Milesian legend, such as Lebor Gabála, the island is occupied by the Túatha Dé Danann, against whom the sons of Míl fight. The significance of this divergence is discussed by Mark Williams, who suggests that the Túatha Dé were only integrated into this scheme for the settlement of Ireland later in the ninth century: Williams, Ireland’s Immortals, 142–5. 13 HB (Harl.), §12 (Faral, III. 12): ‘after an interval of many years, no less than eight hundred’. Faral erroneously reads non minus CC (‘no less than two hundred years’). Contrast with: Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 173; MS Harley 3859, 175v. 14 Gildas, DEB, §19 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 23, 95). Nicholas Evans suggests that the reference to the conquest of Orkney by the Picts is an innovation based on Gildas: ‘Ideology’, 59. Molly Miller points to viking attacks on the northern and western isles as providing a possible model: ‘Martiliny by Treaty’, 135. 15 Bede, HE, i.1 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 18–19). 9



History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

origin legend of the Irish (as discussed above), noting that they came last to settle Ireland (‘novissime autem Scotti venerunt’).16 This is a further divergence from Bede, who presented the settlement of the Irish in Ireland as pre-dating the arrival of the Picts. Indeed, according to Bede the Irish are the ones who direct the Picts to Britain. They are allowed to take wives from among the Irish on the condition that they elect their kings from the female royal line, a custom, Bede claims, that remains to his day.17 It has been suggested that this aspect of the origin legend, evidenced also in Irish sources from the ninth century or later, was intended to legitimise the kingship of the two late seventh-/early eighth-century Pictish kings, the brothers Bridei and Naiton (or Nechtan), who may have been of Gaelic patrimony and whose claim to the kingship derived from the maternal line.18 Nennius finishes this section with a chronological overview of migration to Britain and Ireland: Brittones venerunt in tertia aetate mundi ad Brittanniam; Scotti autem in quarta obtinuerunt Hiberniam. Scotti autem, qui sunt in occidente, et Picti de aquilone pugnabant unanimiter et uno impetu contra Brittones indesinenter, quia sine armis utebantur Brittones.19 The Britons came to Britain in the third age of the world; the Irish, on the other hand, obtained Ireland in the fourth. Moreover, the Irish, who are in the west, and the Picts, from the north, constantly used to fight with joint purpose and with one onslaught against the Britons, because the Britons were not wont to use weapons.

The sex aetates mundi chronological framework is used here, whereby the age of the world is divided into six ages, from Creation to the Day of Judgement.20 What is particularly interesting is that Nennius views this period of migration as a distinct phase in the history of the Insular world; a point reinforced by his description of the migration of the Irish as novissime. The subsequent invasions of the Romans and the Saxons belong to a different phase. The depiction of the Picts and the Irish shifts as Historia Brittonum’s account moves through these phases. Prior to the arrival of the Saxons, the Picts and the Irish are frequently paired together as the gentes who fought against the Britons, a pairing already seen in De excidio Britanniae.21 In this context they are consist HB (Harl.), §13 (ed. Faral, III. 11): ‘but the Irish came most recently’. Bede, HE, i.1 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 16–19). 18 Thomas Clancy provides a detailed discussion of the genealogical relations of Bridei and Naiton: ‘Philosopher-King’. For further discussion of Bede’s origin legend in this context see Fraser, ‘From Ancient Scythia’, 27–34. Gearóid Mac Eoin argued that there was an older Irish legend lying behind Bede’s account, which may have contained a ‘kernel of historical truth’: ‘On the Irish Legend’, quote at 153. This is challenged by Nicholas Evans, who, while not denying the existence of an account pre-dating Bede, has illustrated that the later Irish sources considered by Mac Eoin to be independent records of this lost text may have borrowed material from Bede, as well as being influenced by their own historical and literary context: ‘Ideology’, 51–5. The use of this origin legend as historical evidence for the practice of martilinear succession more generally among the Picts has been convincingly dismissed: Woolf, ‘Pictish Matriliny’; Smyth, Warlords, 59–61; Ross, ‘Pictish Matriliny?’. 19 HB (Harl.), §15 (ed. Faral, III. 13). 20 For discussion of the use of this chronological framework in the middle ages see Marsham, ‘Universal Histories’, 438–9. 21 Gildas, DEB, §§14, 16, 19, 21 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 21, 23, 24, 93, 94, 95). 16 17


Origin Legends II: Legitimate and Illegitimate Migration

ently labelled barbarians: Severus builds a wall across north Britain to protect the Britons from incursio barbarica (‘barbarian invasion’), and the Britons seek help from the Romans against the threat from barbarorum gentibus (‘barbarian peoples’) with Nennius here clarifying id est Scottorum et Pictorum (‘that is the Irish and the Picts’).22 However, once the Saxons arrive on the scene this changes: they are the barbarians now, the gormes afflicting the Britons.23 From this point onwards the Irish and Picts are simply Scotti and Picti.24 There is a connection between Historia Brittonum’s division of settlement into different phases and the treatment of gentes in Armes Prydein. The poet’s attitude towards the English will be considered in the second part of this chapter, but this chronological framework is also important for understanding the treatment of the Picts and Irish, and their respective territories. As discussed in Chapter 1, while the poet prophesies that the Britons will regain the territory taken by the English, the land of the Scots will remain untouched.25 Rather than turning the clock back to the beginning, to a Britain solely inhabited by the Britons, the poet simply wishes to return to pre-English times. This is not a peculiarly medieval mindset. According to Geary, a key ideology implicit in many modern nationalisms is belief in a moment of ‘primary acquisition’, in other words a moment at which the geographical limits of a people’s territory, and their legitimate ownership of that territory, is clearly and conclusively defined. After this point, any further migration to the territory in question would be considered illegitimate.26 For the poet of Armes Prydein, this moment of ‘primary acquisition’ comes after the arrival of the Picts and Irish, but before the coming of the English. No hint is given in the poem that the Britons have a right to northern Britain beyond the Forth. Nevertheless, there is an indication that, despite welcoming the Irish as part of the coalition, the poet is aware of their past conflict with the Britons. In the final awdl of the poem, after outlining the territory that the Britons will possess once the English have been defeated, the poet notes ‘atchwelwynt Wydyl ar eu hennyd’.27 The implication is likely that the Irish will return to their own land after helping the Britons to victory, to Ireland and perhaps also Prydyn.28 This sentiment might be linked to HB (Harl.), §§23, 30 (ed. Faral, III. 19, 21). Gildas refers to the Picts and Irish as barbarians on one occasion: DEB, §20 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 23, 95). However, this reference occurs in a quotation of a letter from the Britons to the Roman consul Aëtius, requesting support against the barbarians. Whilst Patrick Sims-Williams accepts that the letter was a genuine fragment known to Gildas, he argues that it was synchronised incorrectly in De excidio Britanniae and is in fact a request for support against the Saxons: Sims-Williams, ‘The Settlement of England’, 6–14. Nicholas Higham suggests that Gildas did not have a copy of the letter in front of him, and consequently the phrasing is his own from memory, using imagery that is consistent with other sections of De excidio Britanniae: Higham, The English Conquest, 121–35. Plassmann suggests that Gildas does not refer to the Picts and Irish as barbarians because he recognises that they were at least in part Christian, see Origo gentis, 47. 23 For references to the Saxons as barbari, see HB (Harl.), §§36, 40, 44, 45, 48. For discussion of the depiction of Britain as suffering gormesoedd see Sims-Williams, ‘Some Functions’, 105–16, and above, 26. 24 HB (Harl.), §§38, 50–1, 54, 57, 62, 65. 25 See above, 28–30. 26 Geary, The Myth of Nations, 12. 27 APV, line 177 (ed. Williams, 6): ‘the Irish will return to their own’. 28 The specific identity of the Irish involved in the coalition is discussed in Chapter 1, see 30 and n. 75. If the poet did conceive of Irish settlers on Anglesey as among the supporters of the coalition, 22


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

the depiction of the Irish as a gormes in other Welsh texts, including poems in the Book of Taliesin. Thus, the Irish are named as one of five dominions who will wage war against the Welsh in the prophecy Kein gyfedwch, and the Britons will have to face Gwydyl kyl diuerogyon (‘armed pillaging Irishmen’) in the legendary poem Prif Gyuarch Geluyd.29 The reputation of the Irish was also damaged by the account of Bendigeidfran’s campaign in Ireland in the second branch of the Mabinogi: in another legendary poem, Golychaf-i Gulwyd, the poet claims to have been with Bran in Ireland and heard fighting against the Irish, who are described as Gwydyl diefyl diferogyon (‘Irish devils, a pillaging lot’).30 These poems are probably later in date than Armes Prydein and consequently cannot be used as evidence for a tradition known to the poet.31 Nevertheless, as already noted, Historia Brittonum depicts the Irish as barbari, joining forces with the Picts to attack the Britons, recounting also their settlement in parts of Wales before their expulsion by Cunedda. It is possible that the poet sought to reconcile this treatment of the Irish with their participation in the coalition and the poem’s message of unity. This is a reassurance for the poem’s audience, then, that the actions of the Irish in the past will not be repeated; they will come to provide assistance to the Britons but will not overstay their welcome. The poet might even be reacting specifically to Historia Brittonum’s account of Irish settlement in Wales. There is a further reference to the Irish in Armes Prydein that is of interest here: A lluman glan Dewi a drychafant. y tywyssaw Gwydyl trwy lieingant.32 They will raise the holy standard of David to lead the Irish with a linen banner.

St David features heavily in the poem as a supporter of the coalition. This is in tune with the poet’s emphasis on their Christian identity – they are ‘of one faith’ (kytffyd) and have God on their side.33 However, the specific reference to the Irish here is unusual: no other party is similarly singled out in connection with the saint. St David was accorded important status by the Irish in the early medieval period, appearing in the possibly eighth-century Life of St Ailbhe of Emly and in the early ninth-century

they might have been among those expected to ‘return to their own’. However, as discussed above, it is unlikely that the poet had the Irish of Anglesey in mind, see 18. 29 Kein gyfedwch, line 12 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 101); Prif Gyuarch Geluyd, line 87 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Legendary Poems, 58). 30 Golychaf-i Gulwyd, line 34 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Legendary Poems, 276). Diferiog can be compared with Old Irish dibergach, (‘raiding, raider’), see GPC, s.v. diferiog¹, difeiriog; Haycock, Legendary Poems, 288, n. 34. Richard Sharpe notes ‘in Old Irish, its meaning is limited to this ritualized brigandage involving a uotum mali and the wearing of signa diabolica’: ‘Hiberno-Latin Laicus’, 83. This might explain the description of the Irish as both diefyl and dierogyon here. 31 Haycock, Prophecies, 98–9; Haycock, Legendary Poems, 21–36. See also the discussion of this material below, 130–1. 32 APV, lines 129–30 (ed. Williams, 5). On the meaning of llieingant see Williams and Bromwich, Armes Prydein, 56, n. 130; GPC, s.v. llieingant. 33 APV, line 126 (ed. Williams, 5). See also lines 41, 51–2, 97–8, 105–6, 139–40, 166, 180, 192, 195–8. For references to St David specifically, see lines 51, 105, 129, 140, 196.


Origin Legends II: Legitimate and Illegitimate Migration

Martyrology of Tallaght.34 The image conjured here of the Irish following the saint’s standard might be an acknowledgement of this relationship. Focusing on the Christianity of the Irish and their reverence for a Welsh saint may also be the poet’s way of moving beyond their depiction as barbarians who terrorised the Britons. In Historia Brittonum’s case, the evolving attitude towards the Irish may have an additional spiritual dimension. In his account of the saint’s life, Nennius refers to Patrick’s three petitions (tres petitiones) on behalf of the converted Irish: they would receive penance, they would never be overcome by barbarians, and they would be destroyed seven years before Judgement Day.35 Here it is the Irish who will be protected from barbarians, the implied dichotomy being between the Christian Irish and the pagans. The development in Historia Brittonum’s depiction of the Irish, therefore, rests not only on the appearance of a new gormes in the form of the Saxons, but also on their conversion by Patrick.36 These two elements are linked: the Saxons, as will be discussed further below, are described as pagani by Nennius on occasion. Returning to Armes Prydein, it is likely that the image of the Irish marching under the standard of St David is a further attempt at reassuring the audience of the wisdom of the proposed coalition. The Irish were not the only participants in the coalition that might have raised some eyebrows. The ‘men of Dublin’ (gwyr Dulyn), who are treated as distinct from the Irish (Gwydyl), are first mentioned as part of the proposed coalition in the opening awdl, where the poet states ‘a chymot Kymry a gwyr Dulyn’.37 Cymod is an ambiguous word that can mean ‘reconciliation’ or sometimes simply ‘agreement’.38 The meaning ‘reconciliation’ would be consistent with the treatment of the men of Dublin elsewhere in the poem.39 Later the poet notes: A gynhon Dulyn genhyn y safant. pan dyffont yr gat nyt ymwadant.40 The foreigners of Dublin stand with us, When they come to battle, they will not forsake it.

In this description of a battle between the proposed coalition and the English the focus is on unity, and on the good faith of the men of Dublin. The poet was perhaps expecting the audience to react with some scepticism. Considering the frequently antagonistic relationship between the Welsh and Hiberno-Scandinavians in the ninth and tenth centuries, this would not be unreasonable. When Rhodri Mawr was exiled Vita Sancti Albhei Episcopi, §21 (ed. Ó Riain, 70–1. Reference is to the Latin Life in Codex Salmanticensis, the earliest recension of the text). It has been suggested that the Life of Ailbhe was originally composed in the eighth century: Sharpe, Medieval Irish Saints’ Lives, 318–34; Ó Riain, Beath Alibhe, 10–11. Ó Riain suggests that this episode is modelled on Rhygyfarch’s Life of David and thus the text ought to be dated to the period after the composition of Rhygyfarch’s Life 1090–1100: Beath Alibhe, 18–21. Martyrology of Tallaght, March 1 (ed. Best and Lawlor, 20). For discussion of other Irish texts mentioning St David see Bartrum, ‘Dewi Sant (St. David)’, 222. There is a parish of St Elvis (Ailbhe) in Pembrokeshire, not far from St Davids. 35 HB (Harl.), §54 (ed. Faral, III. 37). 36 The role played by the Britons in the conversion of the Irish will be discussed further below, see 145. 37 APV, line 9 (ed. Williams, 1): ‘a reconciliation between the Welsh and the men of Dublin’. 38 GPC, s.v. cymod. 39 Cf. Dumville, ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 157; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 527. 40 APV, lines 131–2 (ed. Williams, 5). 34


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

in 877, for example, it was the sons of Ívarr that were likely responsible.41 Even if the Northumbrians with whom Anarawd entered into an alliance in the 890s were Hiberno-Scandinavians, this was a brief period of co-operation that did not end well.42 An awareness of this uncomfortable record of past relations is one possible reason for the focus on the loyalty of the men of Dublin in the prophesied campaign. Even with this special pleading, the Hiberno-Scandinavians stand out. This is a coalition united in faith and confident of the support of God and St David, as we have seen. But the Hiberno-Scandinavians were likely pagan at the time of the poem’s composition and are described as such by the poet in the above extract.43 In this context, at least, they are outliers. Equally significant is the incompatibility of the Hiberno-Scandinavians with the poet’s framework for distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate migration. When called upon by the poet of Armes Prydein, the Hiberno-Scandinavians had already made their presence known in Britain. Thus, York was seized in 866 and the descendants of Ívarr ruled Northumbria intermittently until 927. Thereafter, Æthelstan and Edmund’s control over the north continued to be challenged by Olaf Guthfrithson, and there may even be a connection between the poet’s proposed uprising and the battle of Brunanburh in 937.44 There is evidence of settlement across the north-west, presumably exacerbated by the expulsion of the Hiberno-Scandinavians from Dublin in 902.45 Yet the Hiberno-Scandinavians are not obviously accounted for in Armes Prydein’s scheme for Britain after the expulsion of the English. The fate of gynhon Dulyn after the coalition’s victory is passed over in silence. If the territory of the Britons was to extend as far as the Forth, however, this would include the kingdom of York, either ruled by the dynasty of Ívarr or in their sights depending on when exactly the poem was composed.46 The Hiberno-Scandinavians had gained significant power and influence in Ireland in the 930s, with increasing conflict with Irish kings, and overlordship over north Leinster.47 Considering this context, it may be that the poet of Armes Prydein viewed gynhon Dulyn and Gwydyl as two sides of the Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 484–7; Dumville, ‘Brittany and Armes Prydein’, 157. See also Etchingham, ‘North Wales’, esp. 163‒75; Etchingham, ‘Viking Age Gwynedd’, 152‒4; Downham, Viking Kings, 202‒5. 42 See below, 166–8. 43 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 528. Cf. Downham, ‘“Hiberno-Norwegians” and “Anglo-Danes”’, 165; Downham, ‘Religious and Cultural Boundaries’. On the pagan connotations of gynhon see below, 133–4. 44 See above, 17. 45 For a detailed overview of these developments see Downham, Viking Kings, 63–105. Viking control of Northumbria in the 880s and 890s is discussed further below, see 167–9. On the evidence for settlement in the north-west see below, n. 50. 46 Thomas Charles-Edwards suggests that the poet’s claim that the land of the Britons will stretch o Wawl hyt Weryt (‘from the wall to the Forth’, line 174) implies that the territory south of the wall will be left in the hands of the kingdom of York: Wales and the Britons, 535. The poet might be referring to the Antonine Wall here, however, see above, 28–9. Even if this is a reference to Hadrian’s Wall, as Thomas Charles-Edwards also notes, the view that south of the wall would be left to the Hiberno-Scandinavians is incompatible with the poet’s claim a few lines earlier that the territory o Vynaw hyt Lydaw (‘from Manaw to Brittany’, line 172) will be in the hands of the Britons. Finally, it is not clear that the poet would have viewed Hadrian’s Wall as the boundary between the kingdom of York and Brittonic territory. The extent of the kingdom of Strathclyde during this period is debated, but likely stretched as far south as Eamont, see Edmonds, Gaelic Influence, 57–9; Edmonds, ‘The Expansion’, 53–5. 47 Downham, Vikings Kings, 41–2; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 525. 41


Origin Legends II: Legitimate and Illegitimate Migration

same coin, the latter perhaps even under the leadership of the former. Relevant here is Thomas Charles-Edwards’s interpretation of the ambiguous line Gwydyl Iwerdon Mon a Phrydyn. He suggests that the poet is here referring to the Gaelic-speakers who had come to Britain, and to Anglesey specifically, as part of a viking contingent.48 As already discussed, Gwydyl…Mon need not necessarily refer to the Irish of Anglesey.49 However, Charles-Edwards makes a persuasive case for the presence of Gaelic-speakers in Britain following Ingimund’s invasion in 902, including place names in Cumbria and the Wirral, and a reference to Irish participation in the attack on Chester in the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland.50 Consequently, even if Gwydyl… Mon is not a reference to Irish settlement on Anglesey, the poet may have perceived a close link between Gaelic-speakers and the Hiberno-Scandinavians. By extension, if the poet envisaged the Irish returning to Ireland, perhaps that too was the fate intended for the Hiberno-Scandinavians. This interpretation is based entirely on the poem’s proposed context, however; there is no clue in Armes Prydein itself as to the future prophesied for the Hiberno-Scandinavians. One thing is clear: there is no place in the poet’s vision for their settlement in Britain. According to Historia Brittonum, the Britons were the first to settle in Britain, only much later joined by the Irish and the Picts. The migration of these three gentes nevertheless forms a distinct phase, a phase that does not include the subsequent invasions of the Romans and the Saxons. This implies that the settlement of the Irish and the Picts is perceived as legitimate, a view expressed more explicitly by the poet of Armes Prydein, for whom the English are the only inhabitants to be expelled from Britain. The exception to this is Irish settlement in Wales, which is noted but immediately dismissed by Nennius through reference to their expulsion by Cunedda. Knowledge of this earlier settlement might also lie behind Armes Prydein’s assurance that the Irish will ‘return to their own’ following the victory of the coalition. The presentation of the Irish in both texts is complex. In the first section of Historia Brittonum they, along with the Picts, are unequivocally the enemy of the Britons. Their role as a gormes is usurped by the Saxons, however, and Nennius provides an account of their conversion by Patrick. The presentation of the Irish in Historia Brittonum shifts in line with these changing circumstances – they are no longer labelled barbari. There is an indication that the poet of Armes Prydein was familiar with this complicated past of the Britons and Irish and sought to reconcile it with the poem’s message of unity, stressing that the Irish would march under the banner of St David and would depart once the job was done. The poet sorted migration to Britain into two distinct camps, legitimate and illegitimate. It remains to examine the origin legend of the one gens who, to the poet’s mind, fell on the wrong side of this line.

The Origins of the English Much of Historia Brittonum’s account of the arrival and settlement of the Saxons in Britain is likely unoriginal. The use of place-names and dialogue suggests reliance on an English source, and there are parallels too with extant sources certainly known

Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 528–9. See above, 18. 50 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 528–9. 48 49


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

to Nennius, such as De excidio Britanniae and Historia ecclesiastica.51 But Nennius has a track record of playing fast and loose with these sources; despite drawing on Gildas and Bede for his narrative of Roman Britain, he was rarely faithful to their accounts. In the context of the English origin legend, Alheydis Plassmann’s consideration of Historia Brittonum’s use of common origin legend motifs, as well as specific comparison with the works of Gildas and Bede is invaluable.52 The following discussion will examine each of the motifs identified by Plassmann in turn but will also bring Armes Prydein Vawr’s account of English origins to the table.53 In the context of Welsh prophetic poetry, Armes Prydein is somewhat unusual in providing such a detailed account of past events. References to the settlement of the English in Britain are scattered throughout the poem, but there is also an awdl dedicated to their origins, which includes references to Gwrtheyrn, Thanet, and Hengist and Horsa. Referring to past events and peoples is not unusual in prophetic poetry. However, such events are most often projected into the future; in other words, the poet prophesies that which has in fact already occurred.54 There are some instances of a more conventional treatment of the past as the past – a reference to the seventh-century battle of Winwaed in Yn wir dymbi Romani kar, for example – but this is less common.55 Of course, these are ambiguous prophecies that are difficult to date, and many references cannot be identified with certainty. In Glaswawt Taliesin, for example, the poet prophesies the wreaking of vengeance on the river Conwy, which might be an allusion to the battle of Conwy in 881, recorded by the Harleian Chronicle as God’s vengeance on the English for the death of Rhodri.56 To return to the key point, treatment of the past in this material most commonly takes the form of scattered references; Armes Prydein’s coherent and detailed narrative of English origins is unique. Linked to this is the unusual coherence of Armes Prydein’s prophecy and the poet’s desire to see it fulfilled. Marged Haycock has identified the reoccurrence of a number of key themes in most examples of Welsh political prophecy, including the threat posed to the island of Britain by a series of successive invaders (the Picts and Irish, Angles and Saxons, Scandinavians and Normans), and the use of stock images to depict a world turned upside down.57 However, in most cases the future prophesied by the poet is vague; frequently there are battles, but the antagonists are not always clearly identified. Dygogan Awen, for example, which begins with the same lines as Armes Prydein but is described as ‘a looser poem’ by Haycock, simply refers to conflict with the otherwise unidentified gynhon.58 In some cases there are several different enemies that require vanquishing, linked to the theme of successive On the likelihood of English material, see Brooks ‘The English Origin Myth’; H. M. Chadwick, The Origin of the English, 39–42; and above, 85–6. 52 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 96–100. See also Thomas Charles-Edwards’s discussion of Historia Brittonum’s response to Gildas: ‘Celtic Britain and Ireland’, 156–7. 53 Lynette Olson has recently highlighted the ‘thematic continuity’ between the poem and Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae: ‘Armes Prydein as a Legacy of Gildas’, quote at 174. 54 Haycock, Prophecies, 13. 55 Yn wir dymbi Romani kar, line 43 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 156. See discussion at 168–9, n. 43). 56 Glaswawt Taliesin, line 8 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 45). For discussion of the likelihood that this is a reference to the battle of 881, see Haycock, Prophecies, 51, n. 8. 57 Haycock, Prophecies, 11–12. 58 Ibid., 86. 51


Origin Legends II: Legitimate and Illegitimate Migration

attacks on the island of Britain.59 The futures prophesied in these poems are most often vague enough to have been applicable to a number of different contexts. Armes Prydein stands out in this regard. The poet has a clear and specific future in mind – the resurgence of the Britons and expulsion of the English – and the entire poem is focused upon achieving this outcome. Yn wir dymbi Romani kar is arguably the prophetic poem in the Book of Taliesin closest to Armes Prydein in this respect. Here, as in Armes Prydein, the poem is fixated on a series of battles through which the Britons, under the leadership of Cadwaladr, will succeed in driving the English from Britain.60 But Armes Prydein is more tightly focused still, with special attention paid to the taxes demanded of the Welsh by the mechteyrn. The poem’s detailed account of English origins is best understood in this context: the poet draws on their past to bolster the case for their expulsion from Britain. In its account of the origins of the English, Armes Prydein stands out from among the corpus of Welsh prophetic poetry, both in terms of its content and for what this tells us about the poem’s composition and purpose. The poem can be productively compared with Historia Brittonum, however, as it includes many of the same building blocks seen in the latter’s account of English origins. Indeed, based on this evidence, Ifor Williams suggested that the poet was likely familiar with the Latin history of the Britons.61 Thus, the poet refers to Horsa and Hengist, listing the pair in the same order as Historia Brittonum, in contrast to the Hengist and Horsa of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.62 The reference to rin dilein (‘secret slaughter’) could, moreover, be an allusion to Historia Brittonum’s treachery of the long knives.63 A more extensive comparison of the two texts will illuminate these links further, shedding light too on the construction, development, and adaptation of the origin legend. Plassmann identified a number of common origin legend motifs in Historia Brittonum’s account of the origins of the Saxons, the first being the ‘exile motif’, already discussed in relation to the origin legends of the Britons and Irish.64 Hengist and Horsa, like Britto, are said to have arrived in Britain in exilio (‘in exile’) from their own lands.65 As noted by Plassmann, this is in contrast to the accounts of Gildas and Bede, who make no mention of exile and state instead that the Saxons were invited

See, for example, Daronwy, lines 18–23 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 30); Glaswawt Taliesin, line 17 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 46); Kein gyfedwch, lines 11–16 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 100–1); Prif Gyuarch Geluyd, lines 10–11, 64, 68, 87 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Legendary Poems, 54–8). Prif Gyuarch Geluyd (which also occurs in the Book of Taliesin) is not categorised as a prophetic poem, but Haycock notes that the poem includes elements of political prophecy, see Legendary Poems, 49–50. See also discussion of a number of other such examples in Haycock, Prophecies, 7–10. 60 Marged Haycock has highlighted a series of specific parallels with Armes Prydein, see Prophecies, 152, some of which are discussed further below, see 132. 61 Williams, Armes Prydein, x–xi, 24, n. 32. 62 APV, line 32 (ed. Williams, 2); HB (Harl.), §31 (ed. Faral, III. 23). Cf. Bede, HE, i.15 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 50–1); ASC A 449. 63 APV, line 34 (ed. Williams, 2). 64 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 96. 65 HB (Harl.), §31 (ed. Faral, III. 23). Plassmann also highlights the arrival of the Saxons in three boats as a reoccurring motif, seen in Historia Brittonum’s origin legend of the Irish: Origo gentis, 96. However, this motif is also present in Gildas’s work, see DEB, §23 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 26, 97). 59


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to Britain by the Britons.66 The use of the ‘exile motif’ links Historia Brittonum’s origin legends of the Britons, Irish, and Saxons, but there may also be another reason for its usage here. Both Gildas and Bede place the blame for the Saxon incursions firmly on the shoulders of the Britons; Gildas specifically criticises the stupidity of the Britons for inviting the Saxons when they already feared them.67 There is no such condemnation in Historia Brittonum’s account. By claiming that the Saxons arrived in Britain as exiles, Nennius lets the Britons off the hook. The use of this ‘exile motif’ may have influenced the poet of Armes Prydein. The English are not explicitly labelled exiles in the poem, but this status is implied in the statement ‘nys arhaedwy neb nys dioes dayar’.68 Moreover, the poet later envisages the English being questioned in battle: Gofynnant yr Saesson py geissyssant. pwy meint eu dylyet or wlat a dalyant. cw mae eu herw pan seilyassant. cw mae eu kenedloed py vro pan doethant.69 They will ask the English for what they have sought, How much of the land they hold [according to] their right? Where is their land whence they set out? Where are their peoples, from what region did they come?

They do not belong in Britain, but neither do they belong anywhere else: the poet envisages them drifting back across the sea with nowhere to go (line 161).70 The image of the English as exiles forced back across the sea also appears in Yn wir dymbi Romani kar. Here the English are described as coming o alltuted and ‘trwy vor llithrant eu heissilled’.71 Highlighting the use of similar imagery as well as the same uncommon verb llithraw, Haycock suggests that this section of the poem is a ‘deliberate echo’ of Armes Prydein.72 Both Historia Brittonum and Armes Prydein make use of the ‘exile motif’ in recounting the origins of the English, then, and in so doing provide a careful adjustment to the role played by the Britons as recounted by Gildas and Bede. A second motif identified by Plassmann is the appearance of a legitimising ancestor. For the Saxons, this role was fulfilled by Woden in most sources.73 Once again, the way this motif is handled in Historia Brittonum is significant. Plassmann notes that when pagan gods such as Woden are used as legitimisers for a gens, their Plassmann, Origo gentis, 96; Bede, HE, i.15 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 48–51); Gildas, DEB, §23 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 26, 97). 67 Gildas, DEB, §23 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 26, 97). Cf. H. M. Chadwick, The Origin of the English, 39, 43, who interprets the use of the exile motif in Historia Brittonum as an indication that Nennius was using another source. 68 APV, line 29 (ed. Williams, 1, discussion on x–xi): ‘no one will receive them, they have no territory’. 69 APV, lines 133‒6 (ed. Williams, 5). 70 Lynette Olson connects such images to Gildas, see ‘Armes Prydein as a Legacy of Gildas’, 180. 71 Yn wir dybi Romani kar, line 33 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 155): ‘whose progeny will slink back through the sea’. 72 Haycock, Prophecies, 152. 73 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 366. For discussion of the importance of Woden as an ancestor, see Davis, ‘Cultural Assimilation’. 66


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paganism is frequently downplayed.74 Bede, for example, does not mention Woden’s alleged divinity.75 Nennius had no such scruples. Historia Brittonum’s genealogy of Hengist and Horsa follows Bede as far as Woden, but subsequently continues to a certain Geta, who is described as an idol the Saxons used to worship.76 Throughout his account of their dealings with the Britons, Nennius persists in stressing their paganism, using the label pagani on two occasions.77 To a degree, this simply builds on the depiction of the Saxons in De excidio Britanniae. Gildas does not refer to the pagan ancestry of the Saxons, but he does call them barbarians and describes them as ‘hated by man and God’ (nefandi…deo hominibusque).78 The primary focus of De excidio Britanniae, however, is the faithlessness of the Britons themselves.79 Nennius instead accentuates the paganism of the Saxons, and offers a contrast between them and the Christian Britons, as in the account of Arthur carrying a portrait of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders into battle (§56).80 The Britons are not all depicted as Christians or behaving in a manner befitting Christians. Nevertheless, individuals such as Gwrtheyrn (who will be discussed further below) aside, a contrast is drawn between two gentes, one Christian, one pagan. Historia Brittonum’s claim that the Britons played a key role in the conversion of the Saxons through the baptism of Edwin of Northumbria by Rhun ab Urien is significant in this context.81 Dwelling on the paganism of the Saxons prior to Rhun’s intervention further underlines the importance of this contribution. Armes Prydein follows Historia Brittonum’s line clearly here. The poet refers to the English as gynhon on three occasions, a term deriving from Latin gentes and used in Welsh poetry to describe pagan peoples.82 As already discussed, the poet of Armes Prydein also refers to the Hiberno-Scandinavians as gynhon Dulyn.83 They may have been pagan at the time of the poem’s composition, but the English Plassmann, Origo gentis, 366. Bede, HE, i.15 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 50–1). See also ASC E 449. For discussion of the genealogy provided by Bede, see Sims-Williams, ‘The Settlement of England’, 22–5. Molly Miller suggests that, for Bede, descent from Woden would simply have served to express royal status, see ‘Bede’s Use of Gildas’, 254–5, n. 1. See also Dumville, ‘Kingship, Genealogies and Regnal Lists’, 78–9. Cf. Davis, ‘Cultural Assimilation’. 76 HB (Harl.), §31 (ed. Faral, III. 23); Plassmann, Origo gentis, 96–7. For a discussion of the extension of this genealogy to Geta, see Sisam, ‘Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies’, 167–9. For discussion of Geta’s appearances in other English genealogies, see Davis, ‘Cultural Assimilation’, 29. Asser, seemingly drawing on Historia Brittonum, also notes that Geat was an idol worshipped by the pagans (§1), see above, 90. 77 HB (Harl.), §§37, 56 (ed. Faral III. 29, 38). 78 Gildas, DEB, §23 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 16, 97). 79 Historia Brittonum’s reaction to Gildas’s claim that the Saxons were punishment from God for the sins of the Britons is discussed below, see 138–9. Plassmann argues that the function of the Saxons (and indeed the Picts and the Irish) in De excidio Britanniae was simply to act as antagonists to the Britons, and consequently Gildas does not spend time developing their identity, see Origo gentis, 50–1; Plassmann, ‘Gildas and the Negative Image’, 12. 80 Thomas Charles-Edwards notes the parallel between this image and that of Oswald carrying the cross into battle against Cadwallon in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, see ‘The Arthur of History’, 25. 81 This is discussed further below, see 144–5. 82 For gynt/gynhon, see Lloyd-Jones, Geirfa Barddoniaeth II. 755; GPC, s.v. gynt. Gynt function as both a singular and plural form, gynhon (also spelt gynnon) a plural. Borrowed from an oblique form of the Latin gens/gentes. Cf. Old Irish gent/genti. For further discussion, see Lewis, Yr Elfen Ladin, 2 (ch. 8), 20 (ch. 75), 40. 83 See above, 128. 74 75


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were certainly not. The poet nevertheless chooses to emphasise their paganism. As gynhon occurs frequently in Welsh poetry its use in Armes Prydein is not evidence of Historia Brittonum’s influence. But Armes Prydein again stands apart from other extant prophetic poetry here. There are only three other examples of gynhon in this material, the meaning of one of which is ambiguous. In the other two cases, the identity of gynhon is unspecified, they are simply the enemies of the Welsh.84 Gynhon is something of a stock term in these poems, used to refer to an enemy whose identity is not always clear, perhaps linked to the theme of waves of different invaders threatening the island of Britain and the Britons. In this context Armes Prydein’s frequent use of gynhon as a label for the English is somewhat unusual. Moreover, the coalition facing the English is one assisted by God and St David.85 Even when not explicitly labelling the English gynhon, the implication is that they are the pagan enemy. The leaders of the coalition are teyrned Dews (‘God’s princes’) who have kept their faith (rygedwys eu ffyd) in contrast to the drycffyd (‘bad faith’) of the English.86 In creating this dichotomy, the poet pays little heed to reality, presenting the Christian English as pagan and the likely pagan Hiberno-Scandinavians as members of a Christian coalition. As well as highlighting their paganism, drycffyd (‘bad faith’) might also be an allusion to the treachery of the English. This is linked to another origin legend motif identified by Plassmann: the committing of a primordial act that establishes a new order, often taking the form of a crime and involving the elimination of a pre-existing gens.87 Asser’s presentation of origins is the subject of the next chapter, but the Life of King Alfred offers an illustrative example of this motif. After setting out the genealogy of Alfred’s West Saxon dynasty, Asser turns to the king’s maternal ancestry. He explains that Alfred’s mother, Osburh, was a daughter of Oslac, King Æthelwulf’s butler (pincerna).88 Curiously, Asser goes on to state that Oslac was a Goth (Gothus), descended from the Goths and Jutes (Gothis et Iutis), and from Stuf and Wihtgar in particular, two brothers who were given authority over the Isle of Wight by their uncle King Cerdic and his son Cynric. The significance of Oslac’s description as Gothus is debated, but at a time of Scandinavian settlement in Britain Alfred may have wished to emphasise the Scandinavian dimension to his own ancestry, perhaps to encourage a broader acceptance of his authority.89 What is interesting in Dygogan awen, line 26 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 88). The Saxons are not named here, although this could be a reference to them. In Glaswawt Taliesin there is a reference to gynt as one of the enemies that the Welsh will face, alongside the Saxons and dygnawt (‘a cruel one’): line 17 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 46). Another possible example of ambiguous meaning: Kein gyfedwch, line 23 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 101). See also instances in Y Gododdin, lines 197, 492 (ed. Williams, Canu Aneirin, 8, 20. See note by Williams on 127). 85 For references to God and St David see APV, lines 51–2, 98, 105, 129–30, 139–40, 166, 179, 195–9. 86 APV, lines 160, 180 (ed. Williams, 6). 87 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 361–2. 88 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §2 (ed. Stevenson, 4; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 68). There is some debate over the status of this position, see Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 163–5, n. 2; Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 229, n. 7. Janet Nelson has pointed to an office of similar status in the Carolingian household: ‘Reconstructing a Royal Family’, 56–7. It is worth drawing attention to the office of pincerna/trullyat in the Welsh laws: Llyfr Iorwerth, §§2, 18 (ed. Wiliam, 1, 13); Emanuel, The Latin Texts, 109, 135. 89 The most detailed discussion of this connections is Nelson, ‘Reconstructing a Royal Family’, which considers this ancestry in the context of the Scandinavian dimension to Alfred’s kingdom, 84


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this context is Asser’s account of Stuf and Wihtgar’s settlement on the Isle of Wight. After being granted authority over the territory by Cerdic and Cynric, they killed the few remaining Britons they could find at Wihtgarabyrig, the other inhabitants having already fled or been killed.90 Keynes and Lapidge suggest that Asser is here providing a somewhat confused account of the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which state that in 530 Cerdic and Cynric captured the Isle of Wight and killed a few men at Wihtgarabyrig, and that in 534 they gave the Isle of Wight to their kinsmen, Stuf and Wihtgar.91 The attention given to Stuf and Wihtgar in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in Asser’s Life has been explained as a part of the desire to promote the achievements of Alfred’s maternal ancestors. Indeed, Patrick Sims-Williams suggests that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s annal for 514 (the West Saxons land at Cerdicesora and Stuf and Wihtgar fight against the Britons) is likely a duplication of the annal of 495 (Cerdic and Cynric land at Cerdicesora and fight against the Britons). The annal is reproduced but with different protagonists, reflecting an increased preoccupation with Stuf and Wihtgar in ninth-century Wessex.92 Rather than simply being a confused account of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entries, a similar motivation might lie behind Asser’s reconstruction of events. Asser presents the conquest of the Isle of Wight as the achievement of Alfred’s maternal kin, but crucially with the consent of his paternal ancestors. Thus, Stuf and Wihtgar’s success in battle is undisputed, but they are also described as ‘having received authority over the Isle of Wight’ (‘accepta potestate Uuectae insulae’) from Cerdic and Cynric.93 This is a highly partisan account that carefully balances the role of the different parties; Alfred’s paternal and maternal ancestors are related, but there nonetheless remains a hierarchy of status and power.94 Returning to the committing of a primordial act: the settlement of Stuf and Wihtgar on the Isle of Wight is only confirmed through the killing of the previous inhabitants.95 A similar primordial act is central to Historia Brittonum’s account of the settlement of the Saxons in Britain: the treachery of the long knives leads to their occupation of the kingdom of Kent and also provides an explanation of the name ‘Saxons’.96 It is unlikely that this was Historia Brittonum’s invention – a similar episode occurs in the work of the tenth-century Saxon chronicler Widukind of Corvery, and the use of Old English suggests dependence on an English source.97 Nevertheless, Nennius returns again and again to the treachery and cunning of the as well as the politics of Alfred’s royal family. Patrick Sims-Williams argues that Wihtgarabyrg likely derives from *Wihtwarabyrg (the -garin Wihtgarabyrg is probably -guar-, thus -war-) meaning ‘city of the men of Wight’, see ‘The Settlement of England’, 30. Cf. Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 172–4, n. 2. 91 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 230, n. 10. Cf. Nelson, ‘Reconstructing a Royal Family’, 49, who notes that Asser may have been drawing on the same sources used by the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle rather than on the annals themselves. 92 Sims-Williams, ‘The Settlement of England’, 37. 93 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §2 (ed. Stevenson, 4; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 68). 94 Compare with the careful balancing of the relationship between the Romans and the Franks in the Trojan origin legend, see discussion above, 101–2. 95 This may be an echo of Bede, who reports the killing of the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight by the West Saxon king Cædwalla in the seventh century: Bede, HE, iv.16 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 382–3). 96 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 113–14. For discussion of the play on the word saxas in this origin legend, see above, 85. 97 See above, 85–6. 90


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Saxons. Hengist, for example, enters into consilium fallax (‘deceitful counsel’) to ensnare Gwrtheyrn and his army.98 This is not unusual: Plassmann notes that the use of cunning to acquire land is another common motif in origin legends.99 In Historia Brittonum’s case, however, there is an interesting connection with De excidio Britanniae. According to Gildas, it is the Britons who are non fideles (‘faithless’), breaking their pledges to the Romans.100 Nennius in fact echoes Gildas’s imagery in his account of the treachery of the long knives, describing the Saxons as ‘amicialiter locuti, in mente interim vulpicino more agebant’.101 In De excidio Britanniae, the Romans perceived the Britons as vulpeculas subdolas (‘tricky foxes’).102 Nennius may be incorporating a common origin legend motif, but he is also likely reacting to Gildas’s account, turning De excidio Britanniae’s depiction of the Britons on its head.103 As already noted, the ‘secret slaughter’ (rin dilein) mentioned in Armes Prydein is probably an allusion to the treachery of the long knives.104 There are further references to the treachery of the English in the poem: their territorial gains are described as ‘ignoble’ (anuonhed) and the poet calls upon God to ‘refuse the deceit of the foreigners’ (gwrthodet flet y allmyn).105 Similarly, the poet stresses that the English obtained Thanet through trickery: ‘pan prynassant Danet trwy fflet called’.106 Nennius not only includes a common motif – the committing of a primordial act – but also adapts Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae to emphasise the treachery of the Saxons more generally. This is a strategy pursued again and again in Historia Brittonum. The remainder of this discussion will consider its other uses in this section of the text. In Historia Brittonum, the Saxons are not only treacherous but also cowardly. Again, there is a link with Gildas’s depiction of the Britons. Thus, Nennius describes the flight of the Saxons from battle: ‘in fugam versi usque ad ciulas suas mersi sunt in eas muliebriter intrantes’.107 A similar image is provided by Gildas: Sed terga pro scuto fugantibus dantur et colla gladiis, gelido per ossa tremore currente, manusque vinciendae muliebriter protenduntur, ita ut in proverbium et derisum longe lateque efferretur quod Britanni nec in bello fortes sint nec in pace fideles. The British offered their backs instead of shields to their pursuers, their necks to the sword. A cold shudder ran through their bones; like women they stretched out their hands for the fetters. In fact, it became a mocking proverb far and wide that the British are cowardly in war and faithless in peace.108

HB (Harl.), §45 (ed. Faral, III. 33–4). Plassmann, Origo gentis, 98, 366. 100 Gildas, DEB, §6 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 18, 91). See above, 114–15. 101 HB (Harl.), §46 (ed. Faral, III. 34): ‘[the Saxons], having spoken in a friendly way, were meanwhile thinking in a fox-like manner’. 102 Gildas, DEB, §6 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 18, 91). 103 Cf. the account of the British king Coroticus being turned into a little fox in Muirchu’s Life of St Patrick, §29 (ed. and transl. Hood, 77, 98): ‘ilico vulpeculae miserabiliter arepta forma’ (‘he suddenly had the misfortune to take on the appearance of a little fox’). 104 APV, line 34 (ed. Williams, 2). 105 APV, lines 33, 52 (ed. Williams, 2). 106 APV, line 31 (ed. Williams, 2): ‘when they bought Thanet through crafty deceit’. 107 HB (Harl.), §44 (ed. Faral, III. 33): ‘and they, turned in flight as far as their ships, were drowned like women entering them’. 108 Gildas, DEB, §6 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 18, 91). 98 99


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In both cases the cowardly party is described as muliebriter (‘like women’), but for Gildas the culprits are the Britons, Nennius the Saxons. The flight of the English is, of course, a central part of Armes Prydein’s prophecy.109 Despite adapting Gildas’s imagery to describe the Saxons as treacherous and cowardly, Nennius is not full of warmth towards the Britons. As observed by Thomas Charles-Edwards, however, the sins of the Britons are ‘largely concentrated in one man, King Vortigern’.110 Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern) is at the heart of every decision made concerning the Saxons in Historia Brittonum: it is Gwrtheyrn who grants the Saxons both Thanet and Kent; it is Gwrtheyrn and his elders who decide to make peace with the Saxons (‘Guorthegirnus cum suis majoribus natu’); and the treachery of the long knives that follows is an operation planned by Hengist to ensnare ‘Guorthigirnus cum exercitu’ (‘Gwrtheyrn with his army’).111 Responsibility is placed squarely on the shoulders of Gwrtheyrn, a strategy also followed by the poet of Armes Prydein, who refers to the English as ‘kychmyn y Wrtheyrn Gwyned’ (‘the shitmen of Gwrtheyrn Gwynedd’) and claims that they have oppressed the Britons ‘yr amser Gwrtheyrn’ (‘since the time of Gwrtheyrn’).112 Nennius only refers to the Britons as a group three times in his account of the settlement of the Saxons. In one instance he states that the Saxons and Britons came together in a meeting, the setting for the treachery of the long knives.113 As all other references that follow are to Gwrtheyrn or Gwrtheyrn’s army/elders this is likely simply a convenient way of explaining the meeting’s setup. Both other instances occur when relations between the Britons and Saxons begin to break into hostility: At illi barbari cum multiplicati essent numero, non potuerunt Brittones cibare illos. Cum postularent cibum et vestimentum, sicut promissum erat illis, dixerunt Brittones: ‘Non possumus dare vobis cibum et vestimentum, quia numerus vester multiplicatus est, sed recedite a nobis, quia auxilio vestro non indigemus.’114 But when those barbarians had increased in number, the Britons were not able to feed them. When they asked for food and clothing, as had been promised to them, the Britons said: ‘We are not able to give you food and clothing, because your number has increased, but rather go away from us, because we do not need your help.’

Historia Brittonum’s account of this episode is again a little different to that found in De excidio Britanniae and the Historia ecclesiastica. All three sources note that the Saxons had been promised payment for their services, but Gildas and Bede both claim that they subsequently demanded greater payment and planned to double-cross the Britons. Bede, following Gildas closely, explains:

See, for example, APV, lines 65–8, 96, 106, 111–12. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 447. See also Charles-Edwards, ‘Celtic Britain and Ireland’, 157. 111 HB (Harl.), §§31, 37, 45 (ed. Faral, III. 23, 27–9, 34). 112 APV, lines 27, 137 (ed. Williams, 1, 5). Cf. Olson, ‘Armes Prydein as a Legacy of Gildas’, 180. 113 HB (Harl.), §45 (ed. Faral, III. 34): ‘et postea conventum adduxerunt, ut ex utraque parte Brittones et Saxones in unum sine armis convenirent’ (‘and afterwards they brought about a meeting, so that from each side Britons and Saxons would assemble together without arms’). 114 HB (Harl.), §36 (ed. Faral, III. 27). 109 110


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales Et primum quidem annonas sibi eos affluentius ministrare cogunt, quaerentesque occasionem diuortii protestantur, nisi profusior sibi alimentorum copia daretur, se cuncta insulae loca rupto foedere uastaturos. Neque aliquanto segnius minas effectibus prosequuntur. First they made them provide a greater quantity of food; then, seeking an occasion for a quarrel, they insisted that unless they received still greater supplies, they would break the treaty and lay waste every part of the island. Nor were they at all slow in carrying out their threats.115

The Saxons are very much in the driving seat here, dictating terms to the Britons. For Nennius, the reverse is true: it is the Britons who terminate the agreement with the barbari. Gildas and Bede’s narrative is rejected in favour of an exchange that emphasises the agency of the Britons. It is significant that in this one instance it is not Gwrtheyrn who deals with the Saxons, but the Britons. It is highly likely, then, that Historia Brittonum’s focus on Gwrtheyrn elsewhere as the individual who treats with the Saxons and brings disaster upon the Britons is deliberate. A final key part of Historia Brittonum’s account of the settlement of the Saxons is the role of God. The construction of a contrast between the pagan Saxons and the Christian Britons has already been discussed, but Nennius also explains the outcome of their struggle with reference to God’s will: Quia non de virtute sua Brittanniam occupaverunt, sed de nutu Dei. Contra voluntatem Dei quis resistere poterit et nitatur?116 Sed quomodo voluit Dominus fecit et ipse omnes gentes regit et gubernat.117 Because they [the Saxons] did not occupy Britain by their own valour, but by the will of God. Who may strive and can resist against the will of God? But the Lord brought it about in the way that he desired, and he himself rules and steers all peoples.

Even here, Nennius provides something of a twist on the words of Gildas and Bede, for whom the Saxons are punishment from God for the sins of the Britons.118 As Plassmann notes, Nennius concedes that it is God’s will for the Saxons to inhabit Britain but does not give a reason for this divine intervention. There is no hint that the Britons are to blame.119 Moreover, the implication of this explanation is that the Saxons were not victorious through any skill of their own.120 Armes Prydein turns this situation on its head in its prophesied future: when the Britons rise against the English, God is very much on their side.121 Marged Haycock observes that secular prophecy is frequently intertwined with Christian belief in the Book of Taliesin, with Bede, HE, i.15 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 52–3). Cf. Gildas, DEB, §23 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 26–7, 97). 116 Here I follow’s Dumville emendation (the text reads nitatus): ‘Textual History’, III. 689, n. 22. 117 HB (Harl.), §45 (ed. Faral, III. 33). 118 Gildas, DEB, §§22–4 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 25–7, 96–8); Bede, HE, i.14 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 48–9). For discussion of these views see Charles-Edwards, ‘Bede, the Irish and the Britons’, 45–8; Hanning, The Vision of History, 55–6; Thacker, ‘Bede, the Britons and the Book of Samuel’; Plassmann, Origo gentis, 46. 119 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 98–9. 120 Cf. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 447. 121 APV, lines 51–2, 98, 166, 180, 195–9. 115


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an awareness of the unfolding of God’s plan in the world and the march towards the Day of Judgement.122 Indeed, God is invoked in most of the prophetic poems in the Book of Taliesin.123 Armes Prydein is nevertheless unique in calling on David and the saints of Britain. Divine support is central to the poem’s narrative, illustrated not only by its content, but also by its location in the Book of Taliesin manuscript, alongside the religious prophetic poem Armes Dydd Brawd.124 Plassmann’s analysis effectively pinpoints the use of common origin legend motifs in Historia Brittonum’s account of the settlement of the Saxons in Britain, including the exile motif, a primordial act, and a legitimising ancestor. Much of this is not original, presumably deriving from an English source. Some material is paralleled in extant works known to Nennius, such as De excidio Britanniae and Historia ecclesiastica. As with his account of Roman Britain, however, Nennius again strikes his own path. This is an account that reflects far more kindly on the Britons than those of Gildas and Bede. The poet of Armes Prydein is similarly fixated on the treachery of the English, their paganism, and their status as exiles, and a series of specific parallels raise the likelihood of the poet’s dependence on Historia Brittonum. This might be an origin legend that explains the settlement of the Saxons in Britain, but it is not solely relevant to this gens. It is as important as the Trojan origin legend in constructing an identity for the Britons in these texts. Plassmann explains that a gens is frequently defined according to their success against other gentes – thus the popularity of the primordial act motif.125 Their struggle against the Britons is key to the identity of the Saxons in Historia Brittonum, as well as the treacherous manner by which they obtained victory. But crucially, the Britons are also defined by this conflict.126 Nowhere is this clearer than in the account of Gwrtheyrn’s meeting with Emrys, and the discovery of two dragons beneath the ground where the king wished to build a stronghold (§42). The red dragon, representing the Britons, struggles against the white dragon, representing the Saxons, and, after a period of weakness, emerges victorious. Interestingly, here Nennius refers to the gens Anglorum, rather than the Saxones used elsewhere in Historia Brittonum. Plassmann argues that this is likely significant: at this moment, where both gentes are defined in the context of their struggle against each other, Nennius uses the name popularised by Bede.127 There is something to be said about the interaction between past, present, and future here. Underlying the discussion in Chapters 3–5 is the assumption that the depiction of the past is a key part of identity construction in the present in these texts. In Armes Prydein’s case, then, the poet’s complaint may be against the reeves of the mechteyrn, but their crimes are rooted in the distant past. The injustice of the taxes they demand of the Welsh is explained with reference to the origin legend of the English, which outlines their deceitful seizure of land from the island’s Haycock, Prophecies, 13. See for example Daronwy, lines 1, 7, 53 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 29–31); Kein gyfedwch, lines 26–9 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 101); Rydyrchafwy Duw ar plwyff Brython, lines 1, 29 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 112–13); Gwawt Lud y mawr, lines 24–5, 96–7, 117 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 126–32); Ymarwar Llud bychan, lines 1–2 (ed. and transl. Haycock, Prophecies, 178). 124 Haycock, Prophecies, 5. For an edition and translation, see Haycock, Blodeugerdd Barddas, poem no. 20 (178–88) Cf. Callander, ‘Datblygiad “Armes Dydd Brawd”’. 125 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 368–9. 126 Ibid., 100–2. 127 Ibid., 102. 122 123


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original inhabitants. The past is here the cornerstone of the identities of the Britons and English in the present, but also the foundation for the future envisaged by the poet. The case of Historia Brittonum is of greater ambiguity. Of Emrys’s prophecy, David Dumville notes that Nennius ‘did not write as though he believed it would ever become reality’.128 Thomas Charles-Edwards, in contrast, suggests that the stage might be set for the downfall of the white dragon at the end of Historia Brittonum.129 The story of the Britons and the Saxons does not end with Gwrtheyrn and Hengist, however. The present and future significance of this past struggle against the Saxons must be assessed in the context of how Nennius presents relations between the two gentes in the ‘Northern History’.

The ‘Northern History’ The ‘Northern History’ is structured around a collection of Anglian royal genealogies and a Northumbrian regnal list, to which framework Nennius adds additional material concerning some of the individuals named.130 After stating the length of Æthelfrith’s reign, for example, he goes on to say that the king gave Din Guoaroy as a gift to Queen Bebba, after whom it is named Bamburgh (§63). Contact with the Britons is frequently noted, including the marriage of Oswiu to Rhiainfellt granddaughter of Rhun (§57), and the killing of Edwin by Cadwallon of Gwynedd (§61). Nennius also synchronises material relating to the Britons that does not involve the individuals mentioned in the genealogies and regnal list. Thus, after stating that Ida reigned for twelve years, Nennius provides a list of poets famous in poemate Brittannico (‘in British verse’) as well as an origin legend for the dynasty of Maelgwn Gwynedd.131 This structuring of the narrative around a regnal list is reminiscent of the earlier account of Roman Britain, which progressed from one emperor to the next. There remains a trace of the depiction of the Britons and English as two distinct gentes in perpetual conflict in the ‘Northern History’. Nennius refers to a certain Outigirn who fought fortiter (‘bravely’) against the gens Anglorum during the reign of Ida, for example.132 This is the exception rather than the rule, however; the tendency here is to focus more specifically on the Britons of Gwynedd and the ‘Old North’, the Northumbrians, and the Mercians. As the material added to the genealogies and regnal list illustrates, the history of these groups was heavily intertwined in the sixth and seventh centuries. Nennius lacked information on, or interest in, other kingdoms; very little additional material is incorporated into the genealogies of the dynasties of Kent and East Anglia.133 This narrowing of focus has a significant Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 414. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 444–5. 130 For discussion of the genealogies and regnal list see Dumville, ‘The Anglian Collection’. 131 HB (Harl.), §62 (ed. Faral, III. 42). 132 HB (Harl.), §62 (ed. Faral, III. 42), but following Dumville’s emendation from Dutigirn, see ‘Textual History’, III. 701. This is the second (and last) use of gens Anglorum in the text, the first occurring in the context of Emrys’s prophecy. For discussion, see above, 139. There are two other references to the English more generally as ambrones ‘robbers’ in the ‘Northern History’: see below, n. 159. 133 The one exception is the statement that the inhabitants of Kent were baptised at Gregory’s instigation, although this is integrated into the Northumbrian regnal list, under the reign of Frithuwald (§63). This is discussed further below, see 145–6. 128 129


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impact on how relations between the Britons and English are presented. There are certainly some instances of conflict between groups of these two gentes, as with the war waged against the kings of Bernicia by Urien and his allies (§63). As Urien ultimately meets his death at the hands of an ally, Patrick Sims-Williams has suggested that the tale was intended to preach the importance of unity against the English.134 There is similarity here, then, with what came before. Indeed, Sims-Williams points to the parallels between the account of Urien and that of Gwrthefyr, the son of Gwrtheyrn in §§43–4.135 For the most part, however, the parties engaged in conflict cannot be so neatly categorised in the ‘Northern History’, and battle lines become increasingly complex as the narrative moves into the seventh century. The battle of Campus Gai, for example, sees the Britons join forces with the Mercians against the Northumbrians (§§64–5). The ‘Northern History’ also records co-operation of a different sort between the Britons and English. According to Nennius (§57), Oswiu of Northumbria had two wives: Eanfled (the daughter of Edwin), and Rhiainfellt (the daughter of Rhwyth, son of Rhun). Bede only mentions Eanfled, but it is likely Nennius who is correct here.136 Oswiu’s marriage to Rhiainfellt is corroborated by a notice in the Durham Liber Vitae, which lists a certain Rægnmæld, before Eanfled, as a queen of Northumbria. It seems likely that Rhiainfellt was Oswiu’s first wife.137 Rum is normally emended to Run and assumed to be the Rhun, son of Urien of Rheged, mentioned elsewhere in the ‘Northern History’.138 This would connect Rhiainfellt to the Brittonic-speaking kingdom of Rheged. Thomas Clancy has questioned this identification, however: there are several other individuals called Rhun scattered across the genealogies, triads, and poetry and it is possible that Rhiainfellt is not connected to Rheged at all, but to some other Brittonic-speaking kingdom in the north.139 Historia Brittonum does refer to Rhun in another context as the son of Urien, but there is no certainty that this is the same Rhun. Whatever the specific identity of Rhiainfellt, it is significant that Nennius simply states the fact of the marriage. This is a striking departure from his earlier treatment of Gwrtheyrn, whose marriage to Hengist’s daughter was described as the work of the devil. There is a greater spectrum of interactions between these two gentes in the ‘Northern History’, a development that is met with no discernible disapproval on the part Nennius. Nor is his attitude towards the English consistently negative in this section of the text. One example is his reference to the Northumbrian king Oswald, who is also given the epithet lamnguin (‘of the white blade’), as sanctus (§64).140 Nennius may have been influenced by Bede here, who refers to the king as ‘sanctissimum ac uictoriosissimum regem Nordanhymborum’ and gives a detailed account of the

Sims-Williams, ‘The Death of Urien’, 37. Ibid., 34–7. 136 Bede, HE, iii.15 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 260–1). 137 Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’, 41–2. 138 For the emendation see ibid., 33. 139 Clancy, ‘The Kingdoms of the North’, 158. 140 For lamnguin see Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’, 33–4; GPC, s.v. llafnwyn. Oswald is referred to as aelwyn in Canu Tysilio Sant by Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr, and in the prose chronicle Ystoria Brenhined y Brytanyeit, see Jones and Owen, Gwaith Cynddelw Brydydd Mawr I, 46, n. 127–8. 134 135


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miracles associated with Maserfelth/Cocboy after his death.141 Having said that, considering Clare Stancliffe’s identification of Maserfelth/Cocboy as Oswestry it would be unsurprising if there was some knowledge of Oswald’s cult among the Welsh, independent of the Historia ecclesiastica.142 The battle of Cocboy is also mentioned in an englyn poem of uncertain date, here maes Cogwy (‘the field of Cogwy’), and it is claimed that Cynddylan of Powys was present.143 Bede himself notes that Oswald’s fame had spread throughout Britain, and one of the miracles related involves a Briton taking a bag of soil from the field where the Northumbrian king had fallen.144 The use of sanctus illustrates that Nennius was aware of Oswald’s reputation, certainly as mediated through Bede, but perhaps also from a Welsh context. Nennius does, to a large degree, continue to diverge from Bede in the ‘Northern History’, although in some cases this appears to reflect reliance on different sources. Of particular significance here is Kathleen Hughes’s argument that the same northern source informed the ‘Northern History’ and the seventh- and eighth-century annals in the Harleian Chronicle.145 Concerning Edwin of Northumbria, for example, both texts state that he was killed, along with his two sons, by Cadwallon at the battle of Meicen.146 This is in contrast to Bede’s account, which refers to the battle as Hæthfelth (Hatfield Chase), reports the death of only one of Edwin’s sons, and records Penda as an additional antagonist.147 The correspondence between Historia Brittonum and the Harleian Chronicle is not always so close, and Nennius was likely not solely reliant on this shared source.148 Nevertheless, in certain cases the detail given matches that in the Harleian Chronicle over Bede. This remains a choice, however. Nennius chooses to eschew Bede’s narrative of Cadwallon as a barbarian who was determined to annihilate the entire English people, for example, presenting his actions instead as part of a broader catalogue of conflict between the kingdoms of Gwynedd, Northumbria, and Mercia.149 Bede himself was engaged in a similar process, of course, as evidenced by his silence on Oswiu’s first marriage.

Bede, HE, iii.7, iii.9–13 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 232–3, 240–55): ‘most saintly and victorious king of the Northumbrians’. 142 Stancliffe, ‘Where was Oswald killed?’. Alan Thacker objects to the identification of Maserfelth/ Cocboy as Oswestry, suggesting instead a location in Lindsey, see ‘Membra Disjecta’, 99. 143 Maes Cogwy (ed. Rowland, 445, 494). This englyn is edited as part of the Canu Heledd cycle but is only found in early modern manuscripts; unlike most of this material it does not occur in the Red Book of Hergest. 144 Bede, HE, iii.10, iii.13 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 244–5, 252–3). 145 Hughes, Celtic Britain, 68–71. Ben Guy has argued that the reliance of the Harleian Chronicle on this source should not be extended beyond 685, the last entry shared with Historia Brittonum: ‘The Origins’, 43. Hughes’s suggestion that the Chronicle of Ireland was drawing on the same source has been convincingly disproven by Nicholas Evans: ‘Irish Chronicles’. The nature of this northern source has been contested, see Dumville, ‘Review: Kathleen Hughes, the Welsh Latin Chronicles’; Dumville, ‘The Historical Value’, 15. Cf. Hughes, Celtic Britain, 71–2. For an overview of the debate see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 347–59; Guy, ‘Historical Scholars’, 88–93. 146 HB (Harl.), §61 (ed. Faral, III. 41); HC [830]. 147 Bede, HE, ii.20 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 202–3). 148 Compare for example the differing treatment of Ceredig of Elmet: HB (Harl.), §63 (ed. Faral, III. 43); HC [616], [617]. For discussion of other sources that may have been known to Nennius, see above, 79–82. 149 Bede, HE ii.20, iii.1 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 202–5, 212–13). 141


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Silence speaks volumes, then. But Nennius also shapes the narrative to reflect favourably on the Britons in other ways, as in his account of the battle of Campus Gai (§64 and §65). §64 recounts the death of Penda at the hands of Oswiu at Campus Gai, along with the kings of the Britons who had accompanied him as far as the fortress of Iudeu.150 In §65 Nennius describes ‘the restitution of Iudeu’: Oswiu returns to Penda the riches that were in his possession in the fortress and the latter distributes these among the Britons. The account finishes by noting that Cadafael, king of Gwynedd, and his army escaped during the night. Their ordering is confused but there are two key episodes here: (1) Penda forced Oswiu to pay tribute and distributed this among the Britons (the restitution of Iudeu), and (2) Penda was then killed by Oswiu on the field of Gai with all his followers except Cadafael who had escaped the previous night. The Harleian Chronicle also records the battle of Campus Gai, likely drawing on the same source.151 Historia Brittonum’s structuring of the narrative is different, however. Prior to the battle of Campus Gai, Oswald ‘restored’ (reddidit) tribute to Penda that was then distributed among the Britons in an act of ‘restitution’ (atbret). The implication is that Oswiu had previously taken these riches from them, whether by tribute or plunder.152 In the Harleian Chronicle, Oswiu does collect tribute, but only after the battle of Campus Gai and the death of Penda.153 This is also a divergence from Bede, who claims that Oswiu’s offer of tribute was rejected by Penda as he wished to exterminate the Northumbrians.154 The intention here is to stress the divine support granted to a Christian king: Oswiu triumphs after giving the riches intended for Penda to God instead. Historia Brittonum’s account of the ‘restitution of Iudeu’ is no less partisan, however.155 Here Penda and the Britons are simply regaining what had previously been taken from them by the Northumbrians; Oswiu does not emerge blameless from this version of events. What Nennius chooses to say – or not say – about Penda here is also significant. Elsewhere, as will be discussed below, Nennius dwells on his paganism, but no mention is made of this in the context of co-operation between the Mercians and Britons. Significantly, the reverse is true in §65: here Nennius recounts Penda’s reign and paganism but does not comment on his relationship with the Britons.156

Here I follow Dumville’s emended text, which moves usque in Manau from the following §65, which, as it stands reads: ‘Tunc reddidit Osguid omnes divitias quae erant cum eo in urbe usque in Manau Pendae’. The meaning of the line is difficult to interpret, and Dumville prefers to emend in line with other instances of displacement of phrases in the text: Dumville, ‘Textual History’, III. 703. The interpretation of this phrase does not affect the argument given here. 151 HC [656], [657], [658]. Having stated that Penda was killed at Campus Gai, Nennius repeats unnecessarily, HB (Harl.), §64 (ed. Faral, III. 43): ‘et nunc facta est strages Gai campi’ (‘and then was done the slaughter of the field of Gai’), changing the name from campo Gai, as used in the first instance, to strages Gai Campi, as in the Harleian Chronicle. Both texts also refer to Penda as Pantha. For discussion see N. Evans, ‘Irish Chronicles’, 33, who notes the significance of a in the first syllable (in line with the spelling Panta/Pante in the Irish chronicles). When Nennius draws upon the Anglian genealogies and Northumbrian regnal list there is generally an e (rather than a) in the first syllable (see Penda in §65, for example). 152 For atbret see GPC, s.v. edfryd¹; Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 47–8; Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’, 38. 153 It may be that the two sources are recording different instances of plundering: Dunshea, ‘The Road to Winwaed?’, 10; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 357; Fraser, From Caledonia, 187. 154 Bede, HE, iii.24 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 288–91). 155 Dunshea, ‘The Road to Winwaed?’, 14. 156 Cf. Charles-Edwards, ‘The Arthur of History’, 25. 150


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Thus far this discussion has focused on the presentation of specific interactions between the Britons and English. Perhaps more significant is the overall trajectory of relations between the two gentes in the ‘Northern History’. Bede is not short of criticism of how the Britons treated their neighbours. Building on Cadwallon’s alliance with the pagan Mercians and persecution of the Christian Northumbrians, he states that to his own day ‘moris sit Brettonum fidem religionemque Anglorum pro nihili habere, neque in aliquo eis magis communicare quam paganis’.157 Elsewhere in his Historia ecclesiastica Bede claims that the bishops of the Britons had refused to provide assistance to Augustine in preaching to the English.158 This accusation clearly bothers Nennius, as he provides an alternative account of the origins of Christianity among the Northumbrians. Thus, Edwin of Northumbria was baptised by Rhun ab Urien, who proceeded to baptise the entirety of the gens ambrones, a name possibly drawn from Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae.159 It is difficult to reconcile this version of events with Bede’s claim that Edwin was baptised by Paulinus.160 But this is not simply a disagreement over which individual should be credited with Edwin’s baptism; there is far more at stake here. It is widely believed that Nennius was challenging Bede’s accusation that the Britons cared not for the conversion of the Saxons.161 Thus, Nennius introduces Rhun ab Urien’s involvement with a fanfare: ‘si quis scire uoluerit quis eos baptizauit’ (‘if anyone should wish to know who baptised them’).162 The structure of this section also echoes Bede’s alternative episode.163 Having baptised Edwin, Paulinus continued to preach in Northumbria for six years, and spent thirty-six days baptising at Yeavering. Rhun, similarly, proceeded to baptise the inhabitants of Northumbria, for forty days in this case, echoing the time spent by Christ in the desert. This further suggests that Nennius was both familiar with, and deliberately contradicted, Bede’s account. Historia Brittonum’s textual context is likely significant here too. As discussed in the introduction, Ben Guy has outlined an earlier stage in the transmission of the texts in Harley 3859: Historia Brittonum was interpolated with a chronicle (termed the Abergele chronicle) and a collection of genealogies ca 858.164 Of particular importance here is Guy’s observation that the Abergele chronicle was especially concerned with the progression of the English towards Christianity and paschal unity, emphasising especially the contribution of the Britons. Thus, the Abergele chronicle also recorded the baptism of Edwin by Rhun ab Urien, as well as several notices concerning the date of Easter, culminating in the adoption of the Dionysiac Easter Bede, HE, ii. 20 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 204–5): ‘it is the habit of the Britons to despise the faith and religion of the English and not to co-operate with them in anything any more than with the heathen’. 158 Bede, HE, ii. 2 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 138–41). 159 HB (Harl.), §63 (ed. Faral, III. 39, 43). The Saxons are also referred to as ambrones in §57 (ed. Faral, III. 39). Cf. Gildas, DEB, §16 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 21, 94). For discussion, see Dumville, ‘Textual History’, I. 238, n. 3; DMLBS, s.v. ambro. 160 Compare the following interpretations: N. K. Chadwick, ‘The Conversion of Northumbria’, 164; Jackson, ‘On the Northern British Section’, 33; Corning, ‘The Baptism of Edwin’. 161 Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 434; Higham, ‘Historical Narrative’, 76; Higham, ‘Remembering the Romans’, 49; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 446–7; Charles-Edwards, ‘Celtic Britain and Ireland’, 157. 162 HB (Harl.), §63 (ed. Faral, III. 43). 163 Bede, HE, ii.14 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 186–9). 164 See above, 11. 157


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by Elfoddw (referred to as archbishop of Gwynedd in his obit) in 768.165 Guy links this preoccupation – and the role of Elfoddw – to the reporting of Edwin’s baptism in Historia Brittonum.166 In the Nennian recension, two bishops, Renchidus (otherwise unattested) and Elfoddw, are said to be the source for the involvement of Rhun ab Urien in Edwin’s baptism, and Elfoddw is also named, as the teacher of Nennius, in the preface.167 Guy is of the view that the preface was part of the archetypal text, and so too this listing of Renchidus and Elfoddw as sources in the ‘Northern History’. Both texts, then, may have been composed in the same environment but, more important here, were preoccupied with the same issue, namely the role of the Britons in the conversion of the Saxons.168 Historia Brittonum may speak for itself on this matter, but this broader context shines additional light on this fixation. A comparison can also be drawn with Historia Brittonum’s treatment of the conversion of the Irish. After explaining that Palladius’s mission to Ireland was hindered by God, Nennius goes on to recount the sending of Patrick (§§50–5). This account compares Patrick to Moses, and lists the miracles performed by the saint, the churches founded, bishops ordained, and number of people baptised. Nennius states that this is a short account, but the focus on Patrick, a Briton, at the expense of Palladius, is nevertheless a striking contrast to Bede, who only mentions the latter.169 As observed by Nicholas Higham, Nennius also stresses that Patrick’s mission was sanctioned by the Pope.170 The Trojan origin legend established the historical superiority of the Britons, setting out their genealogical connection to the Romans and their status as the original inhabitants of Britain. A concern with superiority is also evident here, namely the spiritual superiority of the Britons over their neighbours. The treatment of the Mercians is, to some degree, a continuation of the earlier treatment of the Saxons. The paganism of Penda is stressed: Nennius states that he had not been baptised and never believed in God, and that his victory over Oswald at Cocboy was achieved by ‘devilish craft’ (diabolica ars) and, similar to the earlier account of Hengist, ‘deceit’ (dolus).171 With regard to the Mercians, then, very little has changed. The Britons also hold the high ground over the Christian Northumbrians. According to Nennius, the Britons were converted by an embassy sent by the pope and the Roman emperors; their Christianity stems directly from Rome.172 The conversion of the Northumbrians, in contrast, is entirely the work of the Britons. Indeed, Nennius depicts the conversion itself as a thorough affair, with a reference to the baptising of the ‘whole race of the Ambrones’ (omne genus Ambronum).173 Nennius does not deny that Pope Gregory was responsible for the conversion of Kent. Nevertheless, in the ‘Northern Guy, ‘The Origins’, 38–44. Ibid., 52. 167 ‘Si quis scire uoluerit quis baptizauit eos, sic mihi Renchidus episcopus et Elbobdus episcoporum sanctissimus tradiderunt’ (‘If anyone would like to know who baptized them, Bishop Renchidus and the most saintly of bishops, Elfoddw, passed this on to me’): ed. Dumville, ‘“Nennius”’, 82. On Rechnidus see 82, n. 1. 168 Guy, ‘The Origins’, 52. 169 Bede, HE, i.13 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 46–7). 170 Higham, ‘Remembering the Romans’, 48. 171 HB (Harl.), §65 (ed. Faral, III. 44). 172 See above, 107, 120. 173 HB (Harl.), §63 (ed. Faral, III. 43). Cf. Bede who notes the Northumbrian kings who reverted to paganism: HE, ii.5 (ed. and transl. Colgrave and Mynors, 150–5). On the meaning of omnis here see DMLBS, s.v. omnis. 165 166


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

History’, interaction is largely between the Britons, Mercians, and Northumbrians. In this context, the Britons comfortably occupy the top spot: the Mercians are pagans, and the Northumbrians owe their Christianity to the Britons.174 In his account of the settlement of the Saxons in Britain, Nennius emphasised Christianity as a key difference between them and the Britons. This strategy is evident too in the ‘Northern History’, but with a focus on the process of conversion. As Christians, the Britons and Northumbrians are now part of the same community, but their journeys to this community were along different paths.

Conclusions Despite presenting the Britons as putting up a valiant effort against a succession of invaders, Nennius does not deny that they lost a substantial portion of their territory. The Britain of his own day is an island of four gentes. Nevertheless, a hierarchy remains: Nennius provides a relative chronology for the settlement of these gentes in Britain. This hierarchy develops an additional dimension as the narrative progresses. As a gens converted directly from Rome and playing a key role in the conversion of their neighbours, the Britons comfortably retain the top spot. Indeed, Thomas Charles-Edwards suggests that it is these triumphs that Nennius celebrates the most: the conversion of the Northumbrians by Rhun ab Urien would have a far more lasting impact than Arthur’s military victories.175 Perhaps Nennius even favoured a ‘reconciliation, based upon a common faith, between the Britons and the English’.176 Nennius may have shuddered at Gwrtheyrn’s alliance with Hengist, but such condemnation of co-operation between the two gentes vanishes in the ‘Northern History’, perhaps in part due to their shared Christian identity. Nevertheless, demonstrating superiority remains the preoccupation – and is Historia Brittonum’s preoccupation throughout. Triumph in battle may never be long-lasting, but Nennius nevertheless adapts his sources to ensure that the actions of the Britons are showcased in a more positive light. They are not without fault, certainly, but there is an emphasis on achievement and a sugar-coating of failure. It is possible to interpret Emrys’s prophecy as pointing to the continuation of the struggle between the two gentes, but what Nennius wants from the future of the Britons is largely ambiguous. Ultimately, Historia Brittonum is a defence of the past rather than a blueprint for the future. There is no ambiguity over the future desired by the poet of Armes Prydein, and the past is drawn upon to serve this vision. Here the origin legend of the English is brought into dialogue with their perceived crimes of the tenth century, with no distinction drawn between the followers of Hengist and Horsa and the reeves of the mechteyrn. For the poet, the Britons are the original, and thus legitimate, inhabitants of Britain, and consequently the territory obtained by the English was stolen from them. That this territory fell into English possession through deceit and treachery serves to accentuate the criminality of their actions. Their origin legend thus Cf. Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 411, who goes further, stating that ‘the Britons could be represented as the ultimate source of [the] salvation’ of the four gentes inhabiting Britain. More recently, Nicholas Higham has interpreted Historia Brittonum as ‘challenging the English claim to be Insular champions of Catholicism’: ‘Remembering the Romans’, 49. 175 Charles-Edwards, ‘The Arthur of History’, 20. See also Dumville, ‘Historia Brittonum: an Insular History’, 413. 176 Charles-Edwards, ‘The Arthur of History’, 25. 174


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establishes the identity of the English as a coherent group in the eyes of the poet, but also, importantly, constructs the identity of the Britons through comparison with them. The origin legend of the Britons is not explicitly mentioned in Armes Prydein, its importance instead elucidated through dwelling on the origins of the English. This illustrates further the point made in the introduction that the construction of ethnic identities relies upon the existence of perceived differences between groups; in this case, the importance of the chronology of the arrival of the Britons in Britain lies in the comparison with the origins of the English. The poet identifies a moment of ‘primary acquisition’ in the history of Britain, after which all further migration to the island is illegitimate. The English arrived too late. It is significant that they are the only gens singled out in this way. The origin legend of the Britons, as recounted in Historia Brittonum, presented the Britons as the original inhabitants of the entirety of Britain, but, for the poet, the Forth nevertheless represents the northern limit of their prophesied future territory. It seems, then, that the poet’s moment of ‘primary acquisition’ occurred after the arrival of the Britons, Picts, and Irish, chiming with Historia Brittonum’s presentation of this as a distinct period in the history of the Insular world. Such a neat categorisation of legitimate and illegitimate migration is rooted in a particular version of the past and pays no heed to more recent political developments. Thus, gynhon Dulyn are called upon as allies in Armes Prydein, but their settlement in Britain is unacknowledged. A messy reality is eschewed in favour of a simple future based on the poet’s view of origo gentis.



No amount of special pleading could justify classifying the Life of King Alfred as an origo gentis text. Yet Asser was highly interested in uncovering origins. The previous chapter discussed his account of the settlement of the Isle of Wight, an origin legend integrated into an explanation of Alfred’s ancestry on his mother’s side. Preceding this is a genealogy of the West Saxon royal dynasty (§1). Here Asser includes certain common origin legend motifs, such as descent from an alleged deity, Geat in this instance, and a connection to Rome through the West Saxon king Ine, who ended his life there.1 It is not only the origins of Alfred’s dynasty that interests Asser: the Life of King Alfred in its entirety is an explanation of the origins of a political community. Asser seeks to persuade his audience that they are part of this community and that membership is beneficial. It is the past of Alfred’s lifetime that Asser draws upon and shapes to explain and justify the creation of this community; through incorporating Alfred’s age alongside the year of the Incarnation as a chronological marker, the biography never loses sight of its subject. The events of 886 are a pivotal moment in the creation of this community: drawing on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser records the submission of all Angles and Saxons not under viking control to Alfred (§83). The origin of Alfred’s kingdom is not distilled to this single moment in the Life of King Alfred, however. Broadly, Asser adopts two overlapping strategies for defining and defending the political community. The first is to outline its creation and membership, with a particular focus on the benefits of participation. The account of the events of 886 is an example of this strategy, but Asser is also more ambitious in defining the parameters of Alfred’s kingdom. As already discussed, the Welsh were likely among Asser’s intended audiences; how he set about convincing them of their place in this community is consequently of particular interest. The second strategy is the definition of the community through reference to outsiders, those he terms pagani.2 A consequence of this strategy is that the Life of King Alfred in fact includes an extensive origin narrative of viking settlement in Britain. This chapter For further discussion of this genealogy, see above, 90. For discussion of the phenomenon of English kings retiring to Rome, see Stancliffe, ‘Kings Who Opted Out’. 2 The translation of the Life of King Alfred in Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great will be used here, but I will translate pagani as ‘pagans’ (rather than ‘Vikings’), as it is an important part of how Asser depicts this gens, as will be discussed below. The term ‘viking’ – from Old Norse víkingr and normally translated as ‘pirate’ – will be used on occasion in discussions of the political context. This is a controversial term, but as the focus here is primarily on how Asser depicts these gentes (including the names used), its use is preferable to more specific – and also contentious – ethnic labels. Justification for its use, and a summary of the problematic nature of alternative terms, can be found in Downham¸ Viking Kings, xv–xvi. For further discussion, see Fell, ‘Modern English Viking’, 117; Dumville, ‘Old Dubliners’, 3. For discussion of early medieval usage of the term wicing (as well as other terms) see Fell, ‘Old English Wicing’. 1


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

will consider this narrative in greater detail, focusing especially on parallels with Historia Brittonum’s account of the settlement of the Saxons. The discussion will begin, however, with the first strategy pursued by Asser: who are the members of this community, and why?

Imagining an International Community Asser dedicates his biography to Alfred, Angul Saxonum rex, a title also used in charters from 886 onwards and reflecting the king’s status as ruler of the West Saxons and Mercians.3 The relationship between the formation and promotion of this political order and the fostering of English identity is hotly debated. As discussed in Chapter 2, it is suggested that Alfred sought to cultivate a sense of common identity among the West Saxons and Mercians through the production of Old English texts and the naming of his kingdom’s inhabitants Angelcynn.4 Sarah Foot argues that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also had a part to play, tracing the separate histories of the Mercians and West Saxons to their natural convergence under Alfred’s rulership. This text creates a common past for the Angelcynn, communicated through their common language of Old English.5 In any such narrative there is a fine line between the promotion of a kingdom and the promotion of its ruling dynasty. In George Molyneaux’s view it is the latter that is in fact important here: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is dynastic propaganda. The text may include discussion of other dynasties, but this does not mean that the compiler(s) envisaged a kingdom encompassing them all. Rather it is a means of glorifying the Cerdicings further; they are the most successful of all the dynasties that appear in the Chronicle.6 The submission of 886, marriage alliances between Wessex and Mercia, and the minting of Alfred’s coins in Mercia as early as the reign of Ceolwulf (fl. 874–9) do all point to the development of a new political order, the participants in which are clearly labelled Angelcynn in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.7 Despite this, the Mercians continue to be treated as a distinct group, even if their leader is only an ealdorman, not a king in his own right. There are multiple layers to the presentation of Alfred’s kingdom and the identity of its people in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, then. The text does construct a common identity for the West Saxons and Mercians as Angelcynn under Alfred’s rulership. This interacts with the glorification of the Cerdicings; the excellence of Alfred’s dynasty could not be demonstrated more clearly than through his emergence as king of ‘all the English people that were not under subjection to the Danes’.8 There is no reason that the elevation of a specific dynasty cannot co-exist with the construction of a broader identity for the Angelcynn within the text. Thus, Pauline Stafford’s most recent interpretation of the chronicle as ‘dynastic and West Saxon whilst simultaneously evoking a wider inclusionary identity’ has much to recommend it.9 Keynes, ‘King Alfred and the Mercians’, 31; Foot, ‘The Making of Angelcynn’, 27. See above, 55. 5 Foot, ‘The Making of Angelcynn’, 27. 6 Molyneaux, The Formation, 202‒6. 7 Keynes, ‘King Alfred and the Mercians’, 12‒19. 8 ASC A 886 (ed. Bately, 53; transl. Whitelock et al., 52): ‘7 him all Angelcyn to cirde þæt buton deniscra monna hæftniede was’. 9 Stafford, After Alfred, 50. 3 4


Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom

Considering Asser’s reliance on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is unsurprising that the biography conveys a similar message. Alfred is consistently Angulsaxonum rex, in contrast to Occidentalium rex Saxonum used of his predecessors.10 Indeed, while Alfred is only styled Angulsaxonum rex in charters post-dating the submission of the Mercians, Asser refers to the king as such throughout, even before the events of 886.11 As the account of his anointing by the pope and his alleged status as ‘heir apparent’ (secundarius) from 868 serve to demonstrate that Alfred was marked out for the kingship from an early age, so too the consistent use of Angulsaxonum rex establishes that he was destined to rule both the West Saxons and Mercians.12 Following the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser also records a number of events evidencing a trend of increasing co-operation between Wessex and Mercia. As well as the submission of 886, Asser includes Burgred of Mercia’s requests for West Saxon support against the Welsh (§7) and the viking army (§30), and the marriage of Burgred to the daughter of Æthelwulf of Wessex (§9). Asser’s biography is not simply a translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, however, and there is much additional material relating to the Mercians.13 In some cases Asser expands upon the notices in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, specifying, for example, that Burgred’s marriage occurred at Chippenham. He also incorporates entirely new episodes, such as the marriage of Alfred to an unnamed Mercian woman (§29). Alfred is very clearly Angulsaxonum rex, and the biography outlines how this came about. However, as in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the West Saxons and Mercians continue to be treated as distinct groups. Indeed, Chapter 1 observed Asser’s tendency to depart from his source in his use of Saxonia, the territory of the Saxons, juxtaposed not only to Britannia and Cornubia, but also Mercia.14 Interestingly, in Asser’s case, his attitude towards the Mercians is frequently overtly negative. He dwells in particular on the tyrannical behaviour of their rulers – Offa, Eadburh, and Æthelred – in sections of the biography that are not based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This treatment of the Mercians will be discussed further below, but there are implications for the significance Asser attached to the identity of the Angelcynn as Alfred’s subjects. It is noteworthy in this context that Asser pays very little attention to the production of Old English texts at Alfred’s court, despite likely being involved in the process himself.15

Angulsaxonum rex: §§1, 13, 21, 64, 67, 71, 73, 83, 87; Occidentalium rex Saxonum: §§1, 7, 9, 14, 30, 68. 11 See, for example, §§1, 13, 21, 64, 67, 71, 73. Cf. Foot, ‘The Making of Angelcynn’, 27; Nelson, ‘The Political Ideas’, 155. In one instance it seems that Asser is referring to Alfred in the present, for example that Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxon, provided him with the information (§13) or that he will go on to discuss another aspect of the life of Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, (§§21, 73). However, there are three cases where Alfred is clearly described as king of the Anglo-Saxons in the context of reporting events prior to 886 (§§64, 67, 71). 12 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§8, 29, 42. There is further evidence corroborating the account of Alfred’s journey to Rome (a list of names in the Liber Vitae of S. Salvatore in Brescia, and a fragmentary letter from Pope Leo IV to Æthelwulf) although the exact nature of the ceremony in which Alfred participated is disputed. For further discussion, see R. Thomas, ‘Three Welsh Kings’, 564–5. The status of ‘heir apparent’ did not exist in England in this period, and it may be that Asser was using a Welsh concept to describe Alfred’s status. For discussion, see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 240, n. 56; Dumville, ‘The Ætheling’. 13 The additional material is discussed in greater detail below, see 156–9. 14 See above, 33–4. 15 See above, 55. 10


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

The biography’s dedication makes it clear that, in Asser’s view, the Angelcynn were not the only subjects of Alfred’s kingdom. As well as Angul-Saxonum rex – indeed, listed ahead of this title – Alfred is ‘omnium Brittanniae insulae Christianorum rector’ and Asser subsequently describes Alfred’s forces as Christiani, in conflict with the pagani (the viking armies).16 Alfred’s identity as a Christian king is a key part of his depiction in the text, from his anointing by the pope to his desire to give equal time to spiritual and earthly matters.17 Indeed, Karen Youmans has suggested that Asser goes as far as to present Alfred as a secular saint.18 Looking beyond the king himself, however, there are implications too for the identity of the Christiani over whom he rules. As noted by David Pratt, there is inclusivity to this label: other Christians can be counted among Alfred’s followers, especially, perhaps, the Welsh.19 Significant in this context is Asser’s continued focus on the movement of the viking armies, even after they have departed from Britain (§§61–3, 65–6, and 69). He is, to a degree, simply reproducing the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entries here.20 In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s case, this interest is likely the product of hindsight: the compilers knew that this army was going to return to Britain and consequently took care to record their movements.21 There is more to this strategy than pragmatism, however. By recording the activities of the viking armies elsewhere, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stresses the extent of their threat. As this common enemy formed a bond between the Christians in Britain, so too did it represent a connection to those under attack on the Continent, including the Franks, the Old Saxons, and the Frisians. In the Life of King Alfred, this presentation of a community threatened by a common enemy is accentuated by the use of Christiani and pagani. Asser further emphasises the status of the Welsh as members of this community through recording the slaughter of Christians in Dyfed by a viking force (§54), not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This enemy is not the only force bringing the Christians of Britain and the Continent together in these texts. Both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Life of King Alfred comment on the occurrence of unrelated events across the sea, such as the death of Carlomann, king of the Franks in 885.22 The integration of such notices on developments in Francia with material concerning England presents the history of the two realms as linked. And to a degree they were. There was an intensifying of political connections between England and Francia in the ninth century, as evidenced by the marriage of Æthelwulf and Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald.23 Asser, Life of King Alfred, dedication (ed. Stevenson, 1; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 67): ‘ruler of all the Christians of the Island of Britain’. The use of the title rector may have been influenced by Gregorian thought, see Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred, 135–6; Kershaw, ‘Illness, Power and Prayer’, 216. For further examples of Christiani, see §§35‒9 (ed. Stevenson, 26‒30; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 78‒80). 17 On the theme of dividing one’s time between spiritual and earthly matters, which Matthew Kempshall argues may have been influenced by Gregory the Great’s Regula pastoralis, see Kempshall, ‘No Bishop, No King’. See also Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred¸ 133‒8. 18 Youmans, ‘Asser’s Life of Alfred’, 297‒8. 19 Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred, 109. 20 ASC A 880, 881, 882, 883, 885. 21 Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings, 19. 22 Recorded as Charles in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, see ASC A 885. Cf. Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§68, 70 (ed. Stevenson, 51–3; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 87–8). 23 For a discussion of the motivations behind this marriage alliance (both English and Frankish), see Nelson, ‘The Franks and the English in the Ninth Century Reconsidered’; Nelson, ‘Britain, Ireland, and Europe’, 239–40; Stafford, ‘Charles the Bald’; Enright, ‘Charles the Bald’. Alfred’s 16


Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom

Less tangible, yet no less significant, is the evidence of Carolingian influence on the actions of ninth-century West Saxon kings. It seems likely, for example, that Æthelwulf’s pilgrimage to Rome, and the anointing of Alfred by the pope, was, to a degree, influenced by Carolingian precedent.24 It has been suggested that the cultivation of a closer relationship was in part a response to the viking threat.25 Janet Nelson warns against underestimating the influence of Rome, however.26 According to Asser, Æthelwulf’s will stated that three hundred mancuses were to be sent to Rome annually, and the practice of sending alms to Rome had clearly become commonplace during Alfred’s reign, as the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thought it noteworthy that there was no expedition in 889.27 Æthelwulf himself went on pilgrimage to the Eternal City in 855, likely accompanied by Alfred, who also undertook the journey in 853.28 Such contact with Rome in turn drew England more closely into the orbit of the Frankish kings. This relationship left its mark on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but the Life of King Alfred even more so. It is Asser who provides the most detailed account of Judith and Æthelwulf’s relationship (§13) and Alfred’s anointing in Rome (§8). Asser is also frequently more specific than the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: he refers, for example, to Condé as the location of a nunnery (§65), identifies Louis as Carloman’s brother (§68), and lists the kingdoms under the authority of Charles the Fat (§70). Some of this additional material may have derived from Asser’s contact with foreign scholars such as Grimbald of St Bertin at Alfred’s court. Nevertheless, the inclusion of such notices contributes to the construction of a single community of Christiani. This community existed within the confines of Alfred’s court, as evidenced by Asser’s own experience. A section of the Life of King Alfred is autobiographical in nature, recounting Asser’s own summoning to Wessex as the final stage in Alfred’s far-reaching search for scholars.29 Firstly, Asser recounts Alfred’s despair over the lack of scholars in Wessex, and the consequent summoning of learned men from Mercia, namely Werferth, bishop of Worcester (ob. 907x15), Plegmund, archbishop of Canterbury (ob. 914), and the Mercian priests and chaplains, Æthelstan and Werwulf.30 When exactly this occurred is uncertain, but Asser’s internal chronology suggests the early 880s.31 Alfred, still unsatisfied, then turned to Gaul to seek further scholars, summoning Grimbald of St Bertin, and John the Old Saxon ca 885–6.32 It own daughter, Æthelthryth, would later marry Baldwin II, the son of Judith from her marriage to Baldwin I, count of Flanders. For discussion, see Ortenberg, ‘“The King from Overseas”’, 212–13; Nelson, ‘Britain, Ireland, and Europe’, 240. 24 For the suggestion of Carolingian influence on Æthelwulf’s pilgrimage to Rome, see Pengelley, ‘Rome in Ninth-Century Anglo-Saxon England’, 148–9. For Carolingian precedent and influence on the anointing of Alfred, see Nelson, ‘The Franks and the English’, 146. 25 For discussion of this dimension see Story, Carolingian Connections, 226–7. 26 Nelson, ‘Britain, Ireland, and Europe’, 239; Nelson, ‘The Franks and the English’, 241–2. 27 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §16 (ed. Stevenson, 15; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 73); ASC A 889. For discussion, see Naismith and Tinti, ‘The Origins of Peter’s Pence’, 527–9. 28 For an overview of the evidence for these pilgrimages, see R. Thomas, ‘Three Welsh Kings’, 564–5. 29 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§77–80 (ed. Stevenson, 62–7; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 92–4). 30 For further discussion of these individuals, see Keynes, ‘Alfred the Great’, 28–30. 31 For further discussion of the chronology of these developments, see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 26–7, 213–14 n. 24. Cf. Kirby, ‘Asser and his Life’, 17–18. 32 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 26–7.


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

is only at this point that Asser relates his own recruitment, presenting himself as the final addition to this international community of scholars. It is likely that Asser modelled the description of his own summoning to Alfred’s court on the Vita Alcuini, an anonymous ninth-century Frankish biography of Alcuin that includes an account of the Northumbrian scholar’s recruitment by Charlemagne.33 The accounts are similarly structured and preoccupied with the same themes: the reluctance of the two scholars to leave their religious houses; the gifts provided by their respective patrons, including two monasteries in both cases; and the insistence that these gifts had no impact on the decision of either scholar. The Vita Alcuini only survives in two medieval manuscripts and there is no other evidence that it was ever known in Britain. However, one of the manuscripts originated in Rheims in the ninth century, and consequently the Vita Alcuini may have reached Asser through Grimbald of St Bertin, who was closely connected to Archbishop Fulk of Rheims.34 The movement of these scholars facilitated the movement of texts, then, as evidenced too by Asser’s familiarity with Einhard’s Vita Karoli.35 That Asser looked to the Vita Alcuini as a model for his own experience, however, says something about how he perceived his own position and the community to which he belonged. His interest in Alcuin, whose own career spanned both sides of the Channel, suggests an appreciation of the international nature of the scholarly community at Alfred’s court. This community of scholars is simply the tip of the iceberg in the Life of King Alfred. Asser stresses Alfred’s international outlook and the international make-up of his court in several different contexts. Alfred, for example, not only distributed alms to his own people, but also to foreign visitors (§76). This theme is first broached in Asser’s account of Æthelwulf’s will (§16), which he claims included provision for the poor of the kingdom, whether native or foreign. Alfred’s division of his wealth is subsequently described in greater detail. Among the recipients in this instance were ‘advenae ex omni gente’ (‘foreigners of all races’) and various churches and monasteries, not only in his own kingdom, but also in Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, Northumbria, and Ireland.36 Asser is certainly here adapting a common trope: a similar preoccupation with generosity to foreign peoples is evident in the works of Carolingian biographers. Einhard, for example, notes that the Irish come to regard Charlemagne as their lord simply through hearing of his generosity.37 Similarly, This possible connection was first noted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (acknowledging a debt to Pierre Chaplais): Alfred the Great, 265, n. 195. See also Keynes, ‘Alfred the Great’, 35–6; Wormald, ‘Alfred’, 723; Veyrard-Cosme, La Vita beati Alcuini, 179–80; Godden, ‘Stories’, 137–8; R. Thomas, ‘The Vita Alcuini’. 34 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 55; R. Thomas, ‘The Vita Alcuini’, 23. 35 For further discussion, see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 54–5, 254, n. 139. Although note Thomas Charles-Edwards’s warning against assuming that all of Asser’s learning was obtained at Alfred’s court, see Wales and the Britons, 453–4. For Asser’s use of Einhard’s Vita Karoli see Schutt, ‘The Literary Form of Asser’s “Vita Alfredi”’; Kalmar, ‘Asser’s Imitatio of Einhard’. For the suggestion of familiarity with the biographies of Louis the Pious by Thegan and the Astronomer, see Bullough, ‘The Educational Tradition’, 317–18, n. 3; J. Campbell, ‘Asser’s Life of Alfred’, 118–19. 36 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§100‒2 (ed. Stevenson, 86‒9; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 106‒7). 37 Einhard, Vita Karoli, §16 (ed. Holder-Egger, 19; transl. Noble, 35‒6). See also Abels, Alfred the Great, esp. 187‒9, 258. Although note that Einhard also claims that on account of his generosity, the number of foreigners received by Charlemagne was a burden: Vita Karoli, §21 (ed. Holder-Egger, 26; transl. Noble, 40). 33


Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom

Thegan records the distribution of a portion of Charlemagne’s wealth to foreign visitors on his death.38 For the Carolingian biographers, however, the focus is very much on the political dimension to this sharing of wealth; different peoples submit to Charlemagne and Louis as a consequence of their generosity. Asser is certainly not blind to this political dimension. All those who submitted to Alfred gained wealth, power, and protection from the king, and Asser notes the maxima…dona (‘great gifts’) given to Anarawd of Gwynedd, the significance of which will be discussed further below.39 However, the attention paid to foreign peoples in the Life of King Alfred also goes further than this. Thus, Alfred employed craftsmen from foreign lands (§101), was generous to monasteries in neighbouring territories (§102), and his own monasteries were filled with foreign peoples (§§93–4). Alfred is undoubtedly presented as a politically powerful ruler receiving the submission from neighbouring peoples, but his greatness also stems from the creation of a kingdom that crosses old boundaries. Asser lists these different peoples in order to stress the very fact that their being different peoples is unimportant; they are all, in some form or other, a part of Alfred’s new kingdom. Alfred’s reign is viewed as a key period for the development of a unified kingdom of the West Saxon and Mercians. In translating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser reproduces the narrative of an increasingly close relationship between the Mercians and the West Saxons, accentuated by his description of Alfred as Angulsaxonum rex. However, for Asser, the entry for the year 886 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not go far enough: Alfred is not simply Angulsaxonum rex but also the ruler of all Christians of the island of Britain. Alfred may be striking a different path to his predecessors in his status as ruler of the Angelcynn, but he is also at the head of something even greater. The Welsh are a part of this wider community, mirroring the way Asser himself is part of the wider community of scholars at the Alfredian court. Beyond establishing the existence of this community, Asser also seeks to persuade his audience of the benefits of membership. The focus on Alfred’s benevolence is key here. According to Asser, Alfred was a generous ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain, and those who submitted to his authority had much to gain from their association with him. This gain was measured in power, influence, and support, but also wealth, evident from the gifts apparently received by Anarawd on his submission.40 There is no question in Asser’s mind over the nature of Alfred’s overlordship. Comparison with Armes Prydein underlines the importance of this strategy. A key point of contention in the poem is the collection of taxes by the reeves of the mechteyrn: indeed, the poet prophesies their death at the hands of a Kymry no longer willing to pay.41 These two texts have dramatically different views of English overlordship, then. To some degree, this likely reflects the fluctuating nature of Anglo-Welsh relations during this period. There is no evidence that Alfred demanded tribute of the Welsh, nor that his overlordship was as severe as that of Æthelstan and his successors in the tenth century.42 Considering the resurgence of the viking threat in 892, and the speed with which Alfred’s power in Wales unravelled, it is unlikely that he would have been in a position to demand Thegan, Gesta Hludowici, §8 (ed. Tremp, 188–90; transl. Noble, 198–9). Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80 (ed. Stevenson, 67; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96). 40 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §§80–1 (ed. Stevenson, 67; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96). 41 APV, lines 18–24, 63, 69–72, 78, 84, 100. 42 For discussion of the different forms of overlordship see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 326–7, which also notes that tribute ‘was definitely considered to import a certain servility into the relationship’. 38 39


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

tribute. Indeed, Thomas Charles-Edwards describes Alfred’s period of dominance in Wales as ‘a transition between two harsher regimes’.44 Nevertheless, Asser himself contributes to this view. He is the architect of Alfred’s image as a generous ruler bringing peace to the Welsh. This strategy can be seen elsewhere in the Life of King Alfred too. As noted above, Asser’s presentation of the Mercians is strikingly negative; so much so that Simon Keynes has argued that the Life of King Alfred could not have been intended for Mercian eyes and ears: 43

But above all, Mercian sensibilities might have been offended by Asser’s vitriolic account of Offa’s daughter Eadburh, who is represented as ‘behaving like a tyrant (tyrannice) after the manner of her father’; by the suggestions of Mercian dependence on West Saxon help which go beyond what Asser found in the Chronicle; by the statement that the rulers of Glywysing and Gwent were driven to submit to King Alfred ‘by the might and tyrannical behaviour (vi et tyrannide) of Ealdorman Æthelred and the Mercians’; and by the remark that Anarawd of Gwynedd submitted to the king ‘on the same condition as Æthelred and the Mercians, namely that in every respect he would be obedient to the royal will’.45

Where Asser adds material on the Mercian rulers beyond what is present in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, his depiction is never favourable. The treatment of the Mercians in the Life of King Alfred is, however, much more sophisticated than this initial impression suggests. Asser’s statement that Anarawd submitted to Alfred on the same terms as Æthelred of Mercia is important. The implication here is that the Welsh of Gwynedd and the English of Mercia are equal partners in Alfred’s kingdom. As such, in recounting the relationship between the Mercians and West Saxons, Asser holds up an example for his Welsh audience to inspect – this is what they can expect from their alliance with Alfred. In this context, two key aspects of Asser’s treatment of the Mercians stand out. First, as highlighted by Keynes above, Asser stresses Mercian dependence on the West Saxons. Thus, §30 recounts Burgred of Mercia’s strategy for dealing with the viking threat: Quibus illic advenientibus, confestim Burhred, Merciorum rex, et omnes eiusdem gentis optimates nuncios ad Æthered, Occidentalium Saxonum regem, et Ælfred, fratrem, dirigunt, suppliciter obsecrantes, ut illi illis auxiliarentur, quo possent contra praefatum pugnare exercitum. Quod et facile impetraverunt. Immediately upon their arrival there, Burgred, king of the Mercians, and all the leading men of that people sent messengers to Æthelred, king of the West Saxons, and to his brother Alfred, humbly requesting that they help them, so that they would be able to fight against the aforementioned army; they obtained this easily.46

Thomas Charles-Edwards interprets Anarawd’s attack on Ceredigion, likely with the assistance of the Mercians, in 894, as a challenge to Alfred’s power in Wales: Wales and the Britons, 495–6. On this attack, and the status of Ceredigion in the late-ninth century, see above, 43–4. On the resurgence of the viking threat see below, 167. 44 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 496. 45 Keynes, ‘King Alfred and the Mercians’, 43. 46 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §30 (ed. Stevenson, 24‒5; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 77). 43


Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom

This request for aid also appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: 7 Burhred Myrcna cing 7 his witan bædon Æþered Wessexena cing 7 Ælfred his broðor þæt hi him gefultumedon, þæt hi wið þone here gefuhton; 7 ða ferdan hi mid Wessexena fyrde innan Myrce oþ Snotingaham 7 þone here ðær gemetton on þam geweorce 7 hine inne besæton. And Burgred, king of the Mercians, and his councillors asked Ethelred, king of the West Saxons, and his brother Alfred to help him to fight against the army. They then went with the army of the West Saxons into Mercia to Nottingham, and came upon the enemy in that fortress and besieged them there.47

The pattern of events remains the same, but Asser adds that Burgred asked for assistance suppliciter (‘humbly’) and stresses the eagerness of the West Saxons to help. Asser proceeds to record the response of Alfred and Æthelred to the threat, presenting the Mercians as junior partners who are unable to tackle the viking enemy without their support. Similarly, the events of §7 – Burgred’s request for assistance against the Welsh – are modelled on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (853), but with a greater focus on the speed of the West Saxon response. Asser creates a contrast between the Mercians, who are incapable of independent action, and the West Saxons, who respond to the cry for aid without hesitation. This contrast is implicit in the AngloSaxon Chronicle, but it is accentuated by Asser. As the West Saxons and Mercians grow ever closer, the latter benefit from this relationship. Keynes also draws attention to Asser’s tendency to dwell on the tyrannical behaviour of the Mercians, as in his account of Eadburh, whom he claims poisoned her husband, the West Saxon king Beorhtric (§§14‒15).48 Particularly interesting in this context is the depiction of the Welsh as frequently on the receiving end of this tyrannical behaviour. Thus, Asser claims that Eadburh’s father, Offa, terrorised his neighbours and built a dyke between Mercia and Wales (§14). Offa himself is not mentioned again, although Asser later describes Eadburh behaving like a tyrant more paterno (‘after the manner of her father’).49 As Offa only appears fleetingly, a supporting actor in Eadburh’s story, it is surely significant that Asser chooses to mention the building of the dyke as an additional detail. Echoing the description of Offa and Eadburh, the kings of Gwent and Glywysing are pushed to submit to Alfred by the vi et tyrannide (‘might and tyrannical behaviour’) of Ealdorman Æthelred. This is in contrast to the more neutral description of the vis (‘might’) of the sons of Rhodri Mawr driving the kings of Dyfed and Brycheiniog to submission.50 With the caveat that Asser tends to paint Anglo-Welsh relations with broad strokes, frequently eschewing references to specific kingdoms and territories, this focus on the

ASC C 869 [= 868] (ed. O’Brien O’Keffe, 58; transl. Whitelock et al., 46). MS A (868) does not mention besigeing the enemy. 48 It seems likely that the purpose of this tale was to explain why Alfred’s mother, Osburh, was not referred to as ‘Queen’, while his step-mother, Judith, was granted that status, see Nelson, ‘Reconstructing a Royal Family’, 54‒5. Anton Scharer suggests that Eadburh was one example (among others) of bad rule, illustrating the function of the Life of King Alfred as a mirror for princes, see ‘The Writing of History at King Alfred’s Court’, 205. 49 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §14 (ed. Stevenson, 12; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 71). 50 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80 (ed. Stevenson, 66; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96). 47


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

threat of the Mercians is not unreasonable.51 Thus, Thomas Charles-Edwards observes that in the period prior to the submission to Alfred ‘the Mercians were the English people who mattered to the Welsh’.52 Entries in the Welsh annals and the evidence of the Pillar of Eliseg point to fluctuating Mercian control over the kingdom of Powys, and the death of Rhodri Mawr in 878 was likely at their hands.53 Later genealogical evidence places Æthelred of Mercia at the battle of Conwy in 881, which is described as vengeance by God for the death of Rhodri in the Harleian Chronicle.54 Charles-Edwards argues that this battle was a watershed moment in Anglo-Welsh relations: Mercian overlordship over north Wales collapsed and their influence shifted to the south-east, establishing the political status quo outlined by Asser in §80 of his biography.55 This is not to dismiss the West Saxons entirely. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Ecgberht led an army among the Welsh in 830, and the identity of the antagonists in the Welsh annals is ambiguous in certain cases.56 Nevertheless, there is some justification for Asser’s depiction of the Mercians as constituting the primary threat to the Welsh in the ninth century. Whatever the historical context, how relations between the Welsh and Mercians are presented remains Asser’s choice. Thus, Asser chooses to record Offa’s construction of a dyke between Wales and Mercia as an additional detail with no bearing on the biography’s narrative, and also chooses to present the actions of several Mercians rulers as tyrannical. Asser’s strategy is further illuminated by his account of West Saxon intervention in Wales, the only instance of such intervention recorded in the biography: Anno Dominicae Incarnationis DCCCLIII, nativitatis autem Ælfredi regis quinto, Burgred, Merciorum rex, per nuncios deprecatus est Æthelwulfum, Occidentalium Saxonum regem, ut ei auxilium conferret, quo mediterraneos Britones, qui inter With the exception of the more detailed account of the submission of various kingdoms to Alfred in §80. For further discussion see above, 43–4. 52 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 486. 53 See AC ABC [822] for the destruction of the fortress of Degannwy by the Saxons. The annals occasionally distinguish between the West Saxons (Saxones) and Mercians (Angli), but this is not consistent, and considering the location of Degannwy it is likely that the Mercians were responsible for the attack of 822. For discussion of the Pillar of Eliseg (including a copy of the transcription of the inscription), see Edwards, ‘Rethinking the Pillar’. The date of the resurgence of the men of Powys against the Mercians (Angli) commemorated by the Pillar is uncertain. For alternative reconstructions of events see O. W. Jones, ‘Hereditas Pouoisi’, 74; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 418; R. Thomas, ‘Three Welsh Kings’, 579–80. The annals record the death of Rhodri at the hands of the Saxones (AC AB [878]) but Thomas Charles Edwards notes that Alfred would have been too preoccupied with the viking threat in 878 to launch an attack on Gwynedd. It seems likely, then, that the Mercians (under the leadership of Ceolwulf) were responsible: Wales and the Britons, 488. 54 HC [880]. A thirteenth-century genealogical text refers to the sons of Rhodri fighting Edryd Gwallthir, see: Guy, Medieval Welsh Genealogy, 371; Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 490–1. 55 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 491–2. Asser notes that it is the kings of Glywysing and Gwent who were driven to submit to Alfred by the tyranny of Ealdorman Æthelred. 56 ASC A 828 [=830]. Ecgberht’s campaign is generally interpreted as a by-product of his overlordship over Mercia, although the specific identity of the Welsh whom he reduced to submission is uncertain, as is the length of time for which this submission lasted. For discussion see R. Thomas, ‘Three Welsh Kings’, 578–9. The Welsh annals also record the killing of a certain Meurig by the Saxons: AC ABC [849]. For discussion of the identity of this Meurig and the possible context see R. Thomas, ‘Three Welsh Kings’, 580–1. AC AB [865] record an individual bearing an Old English name (Duta) attacking Glywysing. For discussion, see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 486. 51


Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom Merciam et mare occidentale habitant, dominio suo subdere potuisset, qui contra eum immodice reluctabantur. Nec segnius Æthelwulfus rex, legatione eius accepta, exercitum movens, Britanniam cum Burghredo rege adiit, statimque ut ingreditur, gentem illam devastans, dominio Burgredi subdit. Quo facto, domum revertitur. In the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 853 (the fifth of King Alfred’s life), Burgred, king of the Mercians, sent messengers to Æthelwulf, king of the West Saxons, asking him for help, so that he could subject to his authority the inland Welsh, who live between Mercia and the western sea and who were struggling against him with unusual effort. As soon as King Æthelwulf had received his embassy, he assembled an army and went with King Burgred to Wales, where immediately on entry he devastated that race and reduced it to Burgred’s authority. When he had done this, he returned home.57

The Mercians are again the primary instigators of violence against the Welsh: it is Burgred who requests Æthelwulf’s support, and it is to Burgred’s authority that the Welsh are subjugated.58 As already discussed, this account highlights the support the West Saxons can offer their allies. Burgred and Æthelwulf’s relationship also foreshadows, and simultaneously contrasts with, that of Alfred and Æthelred. Æthelwulf chose to assist Burgred, but Alfred instead offers protection to the kings of south Wales against Æthelred’s tyranny. This is an exercise in stressing the benefits of Alfredian overlordship, with perhaps a hint of a warning, lest the Welsh forget the devastation that could be inflicted upon them should the offer of friendship be rejected. Asser’s depiction of the Mercians is part of his strategy for persuading the Welsh of the benefits of Alfred’s new political order. Previous conflict can be traced to Mercia’s door, and the strength of the West Saxons is illustrated through interaction with their weaker allies. As the West Saxons aid the Mercians, so too might they aid the Welsh, but Æthelwulf’s alliance with Burgred lurks in the background, a reminder of the consequences of resistance. Significant too is the narrative of equal status: Anarawd submits to Alfred on the same terms as Æthelred. The Mercians may be Angelcynn but Alfred’s kingdom is a level playing field. Beyond reproducing notices of political developments from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser is thus remarkably uninterested in the emergence of Alfred as Angulsaxonum rex. In his Life of King Alfred Asser creates a community that is defined by the Christianity of its members and the status of Alfred as their ruler. But the identity of this community rests largely on the contrast with those who are not members: the pagani. It is to this second strategy of identity construction that the discussion now turns.

Asser’s pagani In the year 927, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that a number of kings submitted to Æthelstan, including Hywel of Dyfed and Constantine of Alba, adding that they renounced all idolatry.59 As noted by Thomas Charles-Edwards, there was no practical value to the act of renouncing idolatry: these kings were all obviously Christian. Asser, Life of King Alfred, §7 (ed. Stevenson, 67; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 69). For discussion of the historical context (and fallout) of this campaign, including the possible connection with the death of Cyngen of Powys in Rome in 854, see R. Thomas, ‘Three Welsh Kings’, 574–82. The identity of the mediterraneos Britones is discussed in Chapter 1, see above, 34–6. 59 ASC D 926 [=927]. 57 58


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The purpose, rather, was to create an identity for the participants as Christian rulers, in contrast to Olaf, king of Dublin.60 Asser adopts a similar strategy: their experience as Christians under threat from a pagan enemy binds the gentes of Britain together, and forges a link between them and the Christians suffering on the Continent. The threat of this common enemy is crucial to the construction of group identity in the Life of King Alfred. In Asser’s categorisation of ‘us’ and ‘them’, how the latter are defined is no less important for the identity of Alfred’s community. References to the pagan enemy mostly occur in the first part of the text (§§2‒86), which is given an annalistic structure by Asser’s use of the Common Stock of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a source. The Common Stock is recognised as an Alfredian production and, although its exact date of composition remains uncertain, it is fairly clear that the annals from 893 onwards represent a separate compilation.61 Asser stopped using this source after recording the events of 887, but there is no reason to believe that he did not have a full copy of the Common Stock in front of him. After translating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 887 Asser states that Alfred learned to read, before proceeding to recount the king’s education in detail. This forms the last of four substantial additional sections integrated into the framework of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at points that make chronological sense.62 The second of these four sections, for example, is an account of Alfred’s childhood (§§22–5), inserted into the narrative before he begins to make regular appearances in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle acting alongside his brother, King Æthelred. That Asser turns from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle after 887 to discuss Alfred’s education and kingship is thus not out of line with the rest of the work.63 It is agreed that the copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle used by Asser does not match any of the surviving manuscripts exactly, thus lying more than one stage back in its transmission. Both Stevenson and Janet Bately have observed that Asser’s version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is closer to manuscripts B and C, but is on occasion in agreement with manuscript A, reinforcing this view of transmission.64 There is plentiful evidence – use of Cambro-Latin features (such as sinistralis for north), and the Welsh additions (place-names, for example) – that Asser was translating the work himself.65 Asser also makes additions to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that are thematically consistent with his preoccupations elsewhere in the biography.66

Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 522. Bately, ‘The Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Once More’; Bately, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Texts and Textual Relationships; Bately, ‘The Compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’; Warehouse, ‘Stylistic Features’; Clark, ‘The Narrative Mode’, 216‒21; Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 277‒9. 62 See above, 14, n. 76. 63 Cf. Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 278, where it is suggested that Asser attached special significance to Alfred learning to read, and so turned his attention to that subject after 887. 64 Bately, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 53, 62; Stevenson, Asser’s Life, lxxxv‒lxxxviii. 65 Stevenson, Asser’s Life, lxxxiv; Keynes, ‘On the Authenticity of Asser’s Life’, 544–6; R. L. Thomson, ‘British Latin’, 48‒53. 66 His preoccupation with spiritual welfare and the spiritual role of secular leaders, for example, is evident in the additional sections to the biography (especially §103, discussing Alfred’s division of time between spiritual and earthly matters), as well as in his elaboration on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s account of civil strife in Northumbria (§27) and the battle of Ashdown (§37). 60 61


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The Common Stock of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to the viking armies using a variety of different terms: hȩþen here (‘heathen army’);67 here (‘army’);68 Deniscan (‘Danes’);69 wicengas (‘vikings’).70 Thus, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does on occasion use ‘heathen’, but this is simply one of a selection of terms used. Asser goes much further than his source in his consistent use of pagani; so firm is his categorisation that he even describes an individual residing at a monastic foundation as ‘of the pagan people’ (paganicae gentis).71 For Asser, then, pagani was a synonym, the term used regardless of whether the specific individuals mentioned were pagan or not.72 As already discussed, this usage fits the wider scheme of the work, whereby the pagan enemy are pitted against Alfred’s Christian followers. This strategy was a team-building exercise of sorts. In particular, the Welsh might be persuaded that they belonged on the side of the Christians, not the pagans.73 This interpretation of Asser’s motives is largely uncontroversial. However, there has been very little discussion of its implications. If Asser sought to persuade the Welsh that they belonged in this Christian community, then we might expect to see other strategies at work, beyond the creation of the Christiani/pagani contrast. Placing the biography in a Welsh context can be illuminating in this respect. In the Welsh annals, viking attacks are described as being carried out by gentilibus (‘heathens’) or gentilibus nigris (‘black heathen’).74 This is consistent with the terminology used in the Irish annals, and is echoed in the use of kenedloed duon (‘black heathens’), kenedloed (‘heathens’), and normanyeit duon (‘Black Norsemen’) in the vernacular Welsh chronicles.75 Kenedloedd is a label with pagan connotations, similar to gynhon, used of the Hiberno-Scandinavians in Armes Prydein.76 The English are also gynhon in Armes Prydein, however, and it is their paganism that defines the conflict to come. As Asser creates a dichotomy between the pagan enemy and Alfred’s Christian forces, so too the poet pits the pagan English against the Christian coalition. Nennius similarly draws a contrast between the Saxons, the pagan descendants of the idol Geta, and the Britons, who are led into battle by Arthur carrying an image of the virgin Mary (§52). Asser may cast the conflict between Alfred and the viking enemy on a spiritual plain, but this was not a new or innovative way of writing history. The important point is that in these other Welsh sources, the contrast was between the Britons and the English. Asser’s depiction of the pagans also echoes the presentation of the English in Welsh sources in more specific ways. When translating the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Asser frequently expands upon and embellishes his source material. He focuses in particular on the treachery of the pagans.77 In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle this treachery ASC C 853; hȩþen men: ASC A 851. ASC A 867. 69 ASC A 870. 70 ASC A 879. For further discussion, see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 230‒1, n. 12. 71 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §94 (ed. Stevenson, 81); Nelson, ‘England and the Continent II’, 6. 72 Downham, ‘Religious and Cultural Boundaries’, 18. 73 Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred, 109. 74 AC ABC [850], [853], [867], [871]. 75 For an overview of the terms used in the Irish annals see Downham, Viking Kings, xv–xvii. For examples of references to the vikings in vernacular Welsh chronicles, see ByT (P20; RB) [852], [855], [867], [871], [892], [896]; ByT (BS) [855], [867], [892]. 76 GPC s.v. cenedl, ceneddl a; y Cenehedloedd Duon. For a discussion of gynhon see above, 128, 133–4. 77 Page, A Most Vile People, 10‒11. 67 68


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is revealed through the juxtaposition of the promises made by the enemy and their subsequent actions, as in the entry for 876: Her hine bestæl se here into Werham Wesseaxna fyrde, 7 siððan wið þone here se cing nam frið, 7 him þa gislas sealdon þe on ðam here weorðoste wæron to þam cinge 7 him þa aðas sworan on þam halgan beage, þe hi ær noldon nanre þeode, þæt hi hrædlice of his rice faran woldon, 7 hi þa under þam hi nihtes bestælon ðære fyrde se gehorsoda here inn to Exanceastre. In this year the enemy army slipped past the army of the West Saxons into Wareham; and then the king made peace with the enemy and they gave him hostages, who were the most important men next to the king in the army, and swore oaths to him on the holy ring – a thing which they would not do before for any nation – that they would speedily leave his kingdom. And then under cover of that, they – the mounted army – stole by night away from the English army to Exeter.78

Asser works from this basis, but is much more explicit, labelling such treachery a characteristic of the viking army: Sed, more suo, solita fallacia utens, et obsides et iuramentum atque fidem promissam non custodiens, nocte quadam, foedere disrupto, omnes [obsides],79 quos habebat, occidit, versusque inde [Domnaniam] ad alium locum, qui dicitur Saxonice Exanceastre, Britannice autem Cairuuisc, Latine quoque civitas in orientali ripa fluminis Uuisc sita est, prope mare meridianum, quod interluit Galliam Britanniamque, inopinate direxit, et ibi hyemavit. But one night, practising their usual treachery, after their own manner, and paying no heed to the hostages, the oath and the promise of faith, they broke the treaty, killed all the [hostages] they had, and turning away they went unexpectedly to another place, called Exeter in English (Cairuuisc in Welsh, or civitas Exae [‘the city of the Exe’] in Latin), situated on the eastern bank of the river Uisc [Exe], near the southern sea which runs between Gaul and Britain. There they spent the winter.80

There are some problems with Asser’s text here. Stevenson chooses to omit Domnaniam, but the statement that the viking army killed their horses (equites) makes little sense and is substituted for obsides by Keynes and Lapidge. They also observe, however, that the Annals of St Neots provides occidentem for occidit, and the original sense may have been that the army then turned westwards.81 We should not place too much weight on the claim of hostage killing, then. Fortunately, this corruption does not affect the beginning of the account. Here Asser emphasises the agreement between the viking army and Alfred by listing the hostages, oaths and promise of faith, and describes their treachery as customary. Similarly, §20 is modelled on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s record of events for 865, but Asser describes the pagani as

ASC C 877 [=876] (ed. O’Brien O’Keeffe, 61; transl. Whitelock et al., 48). ASC A does not include the account of the hostages being taken. 79 Stevenson’s text reads equites here, corrected by Keynes and Lapidge. 80 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §49 (ed. Stevenson, 37‒8; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 83). 81 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 246, n. 91. See also Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 250–1, n. 49. 78


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acting ‘like foxes’ (vulpino more) in breaking the peace treaty with the men of Kent.82 Animalistic imagery is also used to describe the pagani in §36, this time as wolves.83 The centrality of treachery to Historia Brittonum’s depiction of the Saxons was discussed in the previous chapter. Hengist is ‘uir doctus atque astutus et callidus’ (‘a shrewd, clever, cunning man’) who manipulated Gwrtheyrn and planned the treachery of the long knives through consilium fallax (‘deceitful counsel’).84 As noted by Plassmann, many origin legends use treachery to explain the acquisition of territory by a gens.85 Such is the case in the Life of King Alfred where the pagani use treachery to seize land in Britain. Asser is not simply using a common origin legend motif, however; the imagery used to describe the pagani echoes that used to describe the Saxons in Historia Brittonum. Thus, as Asser’s pagani act vulpino more (‘like foxes’), Historia Brittonum’s Saxons think vulpicino more (‘in a fox-like manner’).86 Historia Brittonum’s description of the defeat of the Saxons at the hands of Gwrthefyr is significant in this context: ‘et barbari victi sunt, et ille victor fuit, et ipsi in fugam versi usque ad ciulas suas mersi sunt in eas muliebriter intrantes’.87 Asser paints a similar picture of the viking army fleeing after their defeat by the men of Hampshire and Berkshire: ‘cum diutius resistere non possent, muliebriter fugam arripiunt, et Christiani loco funeris dominati sunt’.88 Having gone to great lengths to stress the treachery of the enemy, both texts here focus on their cowardice, describing that cowardice in the same way. As outlined in Chapter 2, Asser was likely familiar with Historia Brittonum, and these parallels are consequently significant. Michael Lapidge has identified a range of verbal borrowings in the Life of King Alfred, including from Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, Gregory’s Dialogi, and Cassiodorus’s Expositio psalmorum.89 It is in this context that we should understand the echoing of Historia Brittonum. Of course, this was not the only source used by Asser in his depiction of this conflict; his account rests ultimately on the framework provided by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and he might also have drawn inspiration from any one of the texts highlighted by Lapidge as influential. However, Asser was familiar with Historia Brittonum and composed a biography that was likely intended for a Welsh audience. This combination warns against ignoring the Welsh context. It may be that Asser’s portrayal of the pagani was deliberately constructed in a way recognisable to a Welsh audience, identifying this group as the enemy, not the English. Alongside the use of Christiani as an inclusive label, casting the pagani in the role previously occupied by the English in Historia Brittonum is another way of arguing that the Welsh belonged in Asser, Life of King Alfred, §20 (ed. Stevenson, 18; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 74). Cf. ASC A 865. For an explanation of the discrepancy in date, see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 238, n. 43. 83 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §36 (ed. Stevenson, 28; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 78). 84 HB (Harl.), §§37, 45 (ed. Faral, III. 27, 33–4). 85 Plassmann, Origo gentis, 98, 366. See above, 134–6. 86 HB (Harl.), §46 (ed. Faral, III. 34). 87 HB (Harl.), §44 (ed. Faral, III. 33): ‘and the barbarians were defeated, and he was victor, and they, having turned in flight as far as their ships, were drowned like women as they boarded them’. This passage was likely influenced by Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae, see above, 136–7. 88 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §18 (ed. Stevenson, 17‒18; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 74): ‘when they could resist no longer, they took to flight like women, and the Christians were masters of the battlefield’. 89 Lapidge, ‘Asser’s Reading’; Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library, 115‒20, 237‒9. Charles-Edwards also argues that Asser was familiar with Gildas: Wales and the Britons, 464. 82


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Alfred’s camp. In this case, therefore, the Welsh context is beneficial to understanding how – and why – Asser created his depiction of Alfred’s enemies. The contrast between the Christiani and pagani is key to understanding the identity constructed by Asser for the inhabitants of Alfred’s kingdom, but also for the identity of those residing outside its borders. Comparison with Historia Brittonum has illustrated that Asser had an eye on Welsh material in creating the pagani. The contrast itself can be explored further, however. It rests, of course, on the assumption that Alfred’s community is Christian, outsiders pagan, but there is also much more to the distinction between these two groups than faith. The next section explores what else Asser presents as important in binding the Christiani together and distinguishing them from the pagani. Asser’s Christiani There are two illuminating instances where the Christiani are described as behaving in an un-Christian like manner: Æthelbald’s usurpation of the throne (§12), and civil strife among the Northumbrians (§27). Starting with the latter, Asser recounts a dispute in Northumbria, prompted, in his view, by the devil. The Northumbrians usurped their rightful king Osberht (ob. 867) and gave the kingship to the tyrant Ælle (ob. 867) and, although the two kings subsequently joined forces against the viking army, they were defeated and killed. The bare bones of this account can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 867, but Asser dwells longer on the resolution to the civil strife, presenting the development as divine intervention and stressing its benefits: ‘consilio divino et optimatum adminiculo, pro communi utilitate’.90 This is a key turning point in Asser’s narrative, after which chaos recedes and the normal order resumes. From this point onwards the Christiani are depicted as united and firm, and, despite their subsequent defeat, the stronger party. What defines the Christiani here is their unity and their respect for the legitimate authority. Turning against the rightful king and sparking disunity is an act instigated by the devil (diabolico instinctu). Such a view may ring a bell for those familiar with De excidio Britanniae. Civil war is here the undoing of the Britons, and Gildas also argues that those in positions of authority should be respected as long as they themselves have not turned against the true faith.91 In the Life of King Alfred, the viking armies are the contrast to the Christiani: they are illegal, lawless bands who take what they want by force. Thus, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply refers to an army attacking Northumbria, Asser presents this army as chaotic, noting their immediate descent into ‘flight and panic’ (fugam et pavorem) and their subsequent attack being driven by ‘pain and necessity’ (dolore et necessitate). The other example is Æthelbald’s rebellion against his father, Æthelwulf: ‘interea tamen, Æthelwulfo rege ultra mare tantillo tempore immorante, quaedam infamia contra morem omnium Christianorum in occidentali parte Selwuda orta est’.92 Asser proceeds to outline the ‘disgraceful episode’, namely an attempt to expel Æthelwulf from his kingdom by Æthelbald and his fellow conspirators, Ealhstan, bishop of Asser, Life of King Alfred, §27 (ed. Stevenson, 22; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 76): ‘by divine providence and with the support of the best men, for the good of all’. Cf. ASC A 867. 91 Gildas, DEB, §§4, 21, 26 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 17, 24–5, 28, 90, 95–6, 98–9). 92 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §12 (ed. Stevenson, 9; Keynes and Lapidge, 70): ‘however, while King Æthelwulf was lingering overseas, even for so short a time, a disgraceful episode – contrary to the practice of all Christian men – occurred in the western part of Selwood’. 90


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Sherborne, and Eanwulf, ealdorman of Somerset. Keen to avoid any danger to his kingdom, Æthelwulf granted his son rulership of the western parts. Asser is our only source for this episode; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply states that Æthelwulf stayed in Rome for twelve months, and that his people were glad of his return.93 Asser’s claim that Æthelbald was granted the western part of the kingdom is ambiguous. It has been suggested that this ‘more important’ (principalior) part of Saxonia was Wessex, and Æthelwulf contented himself with rule of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Essex, territories previously held by another son, Æthelberht.94 Considering the rebellion’s location and participants, however, it may simply be the western part of Wessex that was granted to Æthelbald.95 The specifics of the arrangement aside for the moment, Asser’s presentation of the danger that Æthelwulf viewed as threatening his kingdom is illuminating: Nam, ne irremedicabile Saxoniae periculum, belligerante patre et filio, quin immo tota cum gente ambobus rebellante, atrocius et crudelius per dies singulos quasi clades intestina augeretur, ineffabili patris clementia et omnium astipulatione nobilium, adunatum antea regnum inter patrem et filium dividitur, et orientales plagae patri, occidentales filio e contrario deputantur. For, in order that the irremediable danger to the Saxon land – civil strife, as it were, with father and son at war, or indeed with the whole people rebelling against both of them – might not become more horrible and cruel as each day passed, the previously united kingdom was divided between father and son through the indescribable forbearance of the father and with the agreement of all the nobles. The eastern districts were assigned to the father, but the western districts were assigned to the son.96

As was the case with events in Northumbria, the danger here is the usurpation of legal authority, and the civil strife that followed. Such a state of chaos was so undesirable that Æthelwulf was willing, according to Asser, to reach a settlement with his son that considerably diminished his own power. The action of rebellion against a legitimate authority is un-Christian behaviour, then. Æthelbald continues to play fast and loose with the rules after his father’s death, marrying his step-mother, Judith, a particularly bad move, against the practices of all Christians, but also pagans. Interestingly, Asser describes Æthelbald’s subsequent reign as effrenus (‘unbridled’), implying a continuation of the chaos established in §12.97 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s silence concerning this episode is unsurprising; it is unlikely that the compilers would have wished to dwell on the disunity of Alfred’s dynasty.98 In Asser’s case, his biography is littered with additional material, knowledge of which might occasionally derive from his ecclesiastical positions at Exeter and Sherborne.99 We might expect Asser to be well informed about the rebellion: not only did it unfold to the west of Selwood, but one of the protagonists was ASC A 855. Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 235, n. 27. 95 Miller, ‘Æthelbald’; Stafford, ‘Charles the Bald, Judith and England’, 149. For further discussion of both interpretations see Yorke, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages, 98–9. 96 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §12 (ed. Stevenson, 10; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 70). 97 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §17 (ed. Stevenson, 16; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 73). 98 Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 234, n. 26. Stenton linked the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s silence to a place of composition in the south-west: Stenton, ‘The South-Western Element’, 114. 99 See discussion of Asser’s inclusion of British place- and river-names in the south-west above, 71–2. 93 94


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Ealhstan, a predecessor of his as bishop of Sherborne.100 Asser was not in the habit of throwing anything and everything known to him into his work, however; material was included – and presented in a specific way – for a reason. In this case, it may be that Asser sought to warn against the dangers of division within the royal family. Indeed, Alban Gautier has suggested that the purpose of the biography was to promote the succession of Alfred’s sons over his nephews; in such a context the account of Æthelbald would serve as a warning of the dangers of unlawful succession.101 Asser’s statement that none of the nobles of Saxonia supported the rebellion may be significant. Considering Æthelwulf’s alleged capitulation, it would not be unreasonable to suspect Asser of exaggeration here. Nevertheless, it is possible that the rebellion, which occurred in the most western part of Æthelwulf’s territory after all, found support beyond Saxonia. As discussed in Chapter 2, the Cornish – and indeed Brittonic-speakers in the south-west more widely – may have been among Asser’s intended audience.102 If the region had been problematic for Æthelwulf, this would further incentivise the appointment of a Brittonic-speaking bishop and the composition of a text that not only reflected favourably on Alfred, but also condemned the rebellion of 856. This is unprovable, of course. The Life of King Alfred is our only evidence for Æthelbald’s revolt, and the ealdorman of Somerset and the bishop of Sherborne are the only participants Asser names. Nevertheless, there are interesting questions to be raised about the complex political background to Asser’s position and work in the south-west. There is more to the contrast between the Christiani and pagani than faith; the Christiani are united and follow established order, the pagani are lawless bands. This contrast is at its clearest when the actions of both parties are juxtaposed, as in Asser’s account of the viking attack on Northumbria. But there is a warning for the Christiani here too. Their unity and respect for authority raise them above the pagani, but Asser’s account of the civil strife in Northumbria and Æthelbald’s rebellion warns of the danger of slipping from this pedestal. This is not a particularly new message: Gildas was busy preaching the importance of unity to the Britons in the sixth century, a message picked up and developed in Historia Brittonum. In Asser’s case, though, the desired unity is not that of the Britons as a gens but of the Christiani under Alfred’s rule. Considering the centrality of this scheme to the construction of identities in the Life of King Alfred, the rare instances where Asser departs from the Christiani/pagani classification are both puzzling and significant. The final section of this chapter will consider a handful of ambiguous references to the Northanhymbri (‘Northumbrians’) which break with the ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories so carefully constructed by Asser. Anarawd and the Northumbrians In presenting recent history as a struggle between the Christiani and pagani, Asser sought to convince the Welsh that they belonged on Alfred’s side. It is particularly interesting, then, that one of the instances where Asser diverges from this pattern occurs as he recounts the submission of the Welsh kings to Alfred in §80:

Asser also records the death of Ealhstan in 867 (§28). Cf. ASC A 867. Asser adds that Ealhstan had held his position honorabiliter (‘honourably’). For discussion see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 240, n. 55; Stevenson, Asser’s Life, 227, n. 28. 101 Gautier, Asser, liii–liv. 102 See above, 74. 100


Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom Anaraut quoque filius Rotri, cum suis fratribus, ad postremum amicitiam Northanhymbrorum deserens, de qua nullum bonum nisi damnum habuerat, amicitiam regis studiose requirens ad praesentiam illius advenit, cumque a rege honorifice receptus esset, et ad manum episcopi in filium confirmationis acceptus, maximisque donis ditatus, se regis dominio cum omnibus suis eadem condicione subdidit, ut in omnibus regiae voluntati sic oboediens esset, sicut Æthered cum Merciis. And Anarawd ap Rhodri, together with his brothers, eventually abandoned his alliance with the Northumbrians (from which he had got no benefit, only a good deal of misfortune) and, eagerly seeking alliance with King Alfred, came to him in person; and when he had been received with honour by the king and accepted as a son in confirmation at the hand of a bishop, and showered with great gifts, he subjected himself with all his people to King Alfred’s lordship on the same condition as Æthelred and the Mercians, namely that in every respect he would be obedient to royal will.103

Asser presents Anarawd’s submission as a wise course of action. The trouble reaped from his alliance with the Northumbrians is contrasted with the gifts given by Alfred. Alfred receives Anarawd as a son in confirmation at the hand of a bishop, underlining the Christian identity of the community to which they both now belong. The political context to this submission – for which Asser is our only source – is uncertain.104 The extent of Anarawd’s power in south Wales has been the subject of much discussion, especially his interaction with Ceredigion, which the Harleian Chronicle records he subjected in 894 with the assistance of the Angli.105 The nature and chronology of the Welsh king’s alliance with the Northumbrians – here presumably the viking rulers of York – is equally murky. David Kirby placed the alliance in the period ca 883‒6, suggesting a political context in which Anarawd began to feel increasingly isolated, apprehensive of the rising power of Æthelred of Mercia and the manoeuvring of the south Welsh kings to align themselves with Alfred.106 The Northumbrian context for this alliance is also uncertain: we are primarily reliant on twelfth-century sources for information on Guthfrith, the then king of York. Although he does not appear in the Irish sources, Clare Downham suggests that he might have been of the dynasty of Ívarr, but simply never held power in Ireland.107 The circumstances of the dissolution of the alliance are no easier to reconstruct. To add to Asser’s own evidence, a reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to a defeat of the viking army at Buttington near Welshpool in 893 by a combination of West Saxon, Mercian, and Welsh forces confirms that the alliance was well and truly over by this point.108 In 892 there was an upsurge in viking activity, with further fleets arriving from the Continent, gaining the assistance of those settled in Northumbria and East Anglia.109 Gwynedd itself was also attacked in this year, perhaps explaining Asser’s statement that no good came of Anarawd’s alliance with the Northumbrians.110 Kirby Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80 (ed. Stevenson, 66‒7; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96). The most extensive discussion is Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 490–6. 105 HC [894]. For discussion, see above, 43–4. 106 Kirby, ‘Northumbria in the Reign of Alfred’, 342. See also Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 491‒4. 107 Downham, Viking Kings, 75‒7. 108 ASC A 893. Pratt, The Political Thought of King Alfred, 108‒9. 109 ASC A 892. The treachery of the East Angles and Northumbrians is recorded in the next annal. 110 ByT (P20) 890 [=892]. For further discussion, see Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 491‒4, esp. 494, n. 120. 103 104


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

views this political situation as the most likely context for the dissolution of the alliance, also proposing a link with Alfred’s increasing interference in Northumbria, evidenced by the sending of Æthelnoth, ealdorman of Somerset, to York as a negotiator in 894.111 The prospect of an alliance between Alfred and the Northumbrians would have been a cause of increasing concern for Anarawd. The nature of the evidence makes it difficult to reconstruct the chronology of the submission or to isolate a specific motive, but such a context does seem probable. Curiously, Asser here refers to Northanhymbri, rather than the customary pagani. It is tempting to interpret this as an attempt to deflect attention from Anarawd’s actions. Asser does not brush the alliance aside, however; rather, he stresses the trouble that it caused Anarawd, in contrast to the benefits of submission to Alfred. An alternative explanation might be that Asser was reacting to the changing situation on the ground in Northumbria, as there is evidence to suggest that some sort of process of conversion was underway during Guthfrith’s reign.112 The other references to Northanhymbri in the text, as well as the treatment of the pagani of East Anglia, cast doubt upon both hypotheses. In §102 the Northanhymbri are among the people to whom Alfred was accustomed to give alms, illustrating the breadth of his generosity. The Northumbrians are also the subject of the previously discussed §27, where Asser distinguishes clearly between the inhabitants of Northumbria (Northanhymbri) and the viking invaders (pagani). There is a further reference in §45 to the viking army returning to the province of the Northumbrians after leaving London. Here Asser continues to distinguish between the inhabitants of Northumbria and the pagani.113 Similarly, §47 refers to the regionem Northanhymbrorum (‘region of the Northumbrians’), again describing the movements of the viking armies.114 In every instance, Asser remains faithful to his source, the Common Stock of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which refers to Norþhymbre.115 It is possible to interpret §50 as a turning point in Asser’s attitude towards the pagani resident in Northumbria. He states ‘eodem quoque anno Halfdene, rex illius partis Northanhymbrorum, totam regionem sibimet et suis divisit, et illam cum suo exercitu coluit’.116 There is an impression of finality to the description of Halfdan sharing out the land, an image used again in the text in conjunction with Guthrum’s settlement of East Anglia. Interesting too is the description of Halfdan as ‘rex illius partis Northanhymbrorum’; he is given no such title in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It may be that Asser recognised Halfdan as the legitimate king of Northumbria, no longer a viking raider. It is also telling that his followers are simply referred to as ‘his own’ (suis), rather than the customary pagani. There is no evidence to suggest that Halfdan himself underwent conversion, and so it is unlikely that Asser eschewed the

Kirby, ‘Northumbria in the Reign of Alfred’, 343‒5; Hall, ‘A Kingdom Too Far’, 188‒9. The sending of Æthelnoth is recorded in Æthelweard, Chronicon (ed. and transl. A. Campbell, 51). 112 Downham, Vikings Kings, 77–8. See also Abrams, ‘The Conversion of the Danelaw’; Hadley, ‘Conquest, Colonisation and the Church’. 113 For discussion of the possible context, see Downham, Viking Kings, 69. 114 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §47 (ed. Stevenson, 36; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 82). 115 ASC A 867, 873, 875. 116 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §50 (ed. Stevenson, 38; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 83): ‘in the same year Halfdan, king of one part of the Northumbrians, shared out the whole province between himself and his men, and together with his army cultivated the land’. 111


Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom

use of pagani for this reason.117 It is difficult to contextualise Asser’s treatment of Halfdan, as he disappears from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the remainder of the Common Stock, the Northumbrian vikings only re-appearing in the entry for 893. Clare Downham argues that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle streamlines its account to create an image of a single viking army, resulting in a focus on the movements of Guthrum. Halfdan is no longer part of the key narrative thread of the Chronicle and is left to his own devices in Northumbria.118 The vikings of Northumbria do, however, remain on Asser’s radar, mainly due to their alliance with Anarawd. This is evidence enough that they were still a threat to Alfred; a threat that clearly reared its head enough to merit their mentioning once more in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s entry for 893, providing assistance to a viking force from the Continent.119 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s silence and Asser’s use of the label Northanhymbri are not prompted by the unimportance or irrelevance of the vikings of Northumbria, then. They remained influential in shaping the politics of Alfred’s reign.120 This treatment of the Northanhymbri is more puzzling still when compared with the depiction of Guthrum and his followers after their settlement with Alfred; they remain pagani, despite Guthrum’s baptism. There are a further two passages key to understanding Asser’s treatment of Guthrum. In §67 Alfred plundered East Anglia and triumphed in a naval battle: Cumque inde victrix regia classis dormiret, pagani, qui [ad] Orientalium Anglorum regionem habitabant, congregatis undecunque navibus, eidem regiae classi in ostio eiusdem fluminis in mari obviaverunt, consertoque navali proelio, pagani victoriam habuerunt. As the victorious royal fleet was about to go home, the pagans who lived in East Anglia assembled ships from everywhere and met it in the mouth of the same river; there was a naval encounter and the pagans had the victory.121

Keynes and Lapidge suggest that Alfred’s attack was retaliation for East Anglia’s support for the viking force that came from the Continent. This aspect is not mentioned by Asser, but it may be because it was absent from the version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to which he had access. The chronicler Æthelweard fills in the gap, explaining that a part of the army established a base in Essex with the assistance of the East Anglian vikings.122 What is significant in this context is the reference to the pagani ‘who lived in East Anglia’. These are not East Anglians, but pagani who have settled there. The same pattern is followed in §72, where Asser refers to the breaking of the peace by the pagani settled in East Anglia. Asser is not consistent in his presentation of the pagans of East Anglia and Northumbria, then. Nor are Guthrum and Halfdan themselves given equal treatment, the former referred to as paganorum For an overview of what we know about Halfdan, see Downham, Viking Kings, 68–71. For discussion of the Christianisation of the viking regime in Northumbria, see Pickles, Kingship, 211. 118 Downham, ‘Annals’, 21. 119 ASC A 893. 120 For further discussion, see Downham, Viking Kings, 71‒7. 121 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §67 (ed. Stevenson, 51; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 87). For a possible explanation of dormiret see Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 252, n. 128. 122 Æthelweard, Chronicon (ed. and transl. A. Campbell, 44‒55); Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, 252, n. 125. 117


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

rex (‘king of the pagans’).123 Despite submitting to Alfred and receiving baptism, Guthrum is still presented solely as king of the pagani, not king of East Anglia. Asser is here following the precedent set by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which similarly continues to treat Guthrum and his followers as distinct from the other inhabitants of East Anglia. Thus, recording Guthrum’s death: ‘7 Godrum se norþerna cyning forþferde, þæs fulluhtnama wæs Ȩþelstan, se wæs Ȩlfredes cyninges godsunu, 7 he bude on Eastenglum 7 þæt lond ærest gesæt’.124 Here Guthrum is called the ‘northern king’, and is described as having lived in East Anglia, not ruled it. Asser is thus following the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in his treatment of the pagani of East Anglia as a distinct group. Unfortunately, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle pays no attention to those settled in Northumbria in its notices for the period 876‒92, it is not possible to compare the two texts in the same way. Clare Downham argues that the frequent use of ‘Northumbrians’ to describe the vikings of York in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s post-892 annals is evidence of the speed with which integration occurred in Northumbria.125 In Asser’s case, the characteristics upon which he bases his contrast between the Christiani and pagani are likely important. As discussed above, this is not solely a matter of faith; the Christiani stand united behind legitimate rulers while the pagani sow seeds of chaos with their disunity and disrespect for authority. If the those settled in Northumbria are no longer to be considered pagani, then it follows that Asser is recognising the legitimacy of their rule. This is certainly the implication of his description of Halfdan as king, not of the pagani, but of the Northumbrians. The immediate political context to the composition of the Life of King Alfred may be significant in this respect. According to Æthelweard, by 894 Alfred had begun negotiations with York through Ealdorman Æthelnoth, which Downham argues illustrates the strength of the polity in the 890s.126 Asser’s attitude towards the vikings of Northumbria may, therefore, have been influenced by their relations with Alfred. Perhaps significant too is the evidence for co-operation between the viking regime and the archbishop of York.127 This is not incompatible with the attitude of both Asser and the Common Stock of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle towards the vikings of East Anglia. According to Asser, it is the pagani of East Anglia who broke the peace with Alfred; no mention is made of Guthrum.128 It may be that Asser viewed these pagani as raiders not operating under the authority of the king, no different to the marauders attacking Wessex before the peace. The implication might even be that the East Anglian vikings had not succeeded in establishing a legitimate and ordered kingdom of the same ilk as York. Indeed, such a view might lie behind the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s description of Guthrum as ‘northern king’ in the entry recording his death in 890. The depiction of Asser, Life of King Alfred, §56 (ed. Stevenson, 46). ASC A 890 (ed. Bately, 54; transl. Whitelock et al., 53): ‘And the northern king, Guthrum, whose baptismal name was Athelstan, died. He was King Alfred’s godson, and he lived in East Anglia and was the first to settle that land’. 125 Downham, Viking Kings, 74, n. 72. 126 Ibid., 74. 127 For discussion see Pickles, Kingship, 208–14, which provides an overview of the evidence for co-operation, including discussion of coinage and annalistic sources. 128 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §72 (ed. Stevenson, 54; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 88). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle simply refers to here (‘army’): ASC A 885. This peace might be the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum, which Simon Keynes has suggested could be dated as early as 880 (based on an earlier date for Alfred’s control of London): ‘King Alfred and the Mercians’, 33‒4. 123 124


Asser and the Origins of Alfred’s Kingdom

the vikings should not be taken at face value in either source; Asser chooses to refer to those in East Anglia as pagani, those in Northumbria Northanhymbri. In so doing he may have been influenced by the political context, but it is a choice, nonetheless. We might even speculate that the legitimacy of viking settlement in East Anglia, a kingdom conquered by Wessex some decades later, was deliberately downplayed. On closer examination, Asser’s categories are less rigid than they first appear. In the case of Halfdan and his followers, they begin as pagani but subsequently become Anarawd’s allies, the Northanhymbri. The reasons behind this shift are ambiguous, but it is likely that Asser sought to present this settlement in Northumbria as legitimate, perhaps influenced by changing political circumstances. The chaotic nature of the pagani, their disunity and their raiding, set them apart from the Christiani in the biography, but it seems that Asser viewed Halfdan and his followers as having outgrown this categorisation. They are still not members of the Christian community over which Alfred rules, but nor are they the enemy against which this community is defined. In Historia Brittonum’s case, the conversion of Edwin by Rhun ab Urien led to a more complex treatment of the Saxons; they no longer fitted into the box that Nennius had constructed for them in his account of their origin legend, and nor did it suit his purpose to keep them there.129 For Asser, conversion is not so important; the baptised Guthrum remained king of the pagani, and there is no evidence that Halfdan converted after settling in Northumbria. Rather, in establishing a new political order in Northumbria, Asser viewed Halfdan and his followers as having left the disunity and illegitimacy characteristic of the pagani behind.

Conclusions The Life of King Alfred is an origin legend of a different sort: it is not the origins of a gens that is of primary interest to Asser, but the origins of a political community. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which focuses on the emergence of a kingdom of the West Saxons and Mercians under Alfred’s rulership, Asser’s community is broader. According to Asser, Alfred is ruler of all Christians in Britain, and these Christians are welcomed into his kingdom, as scholars, craftsmen, monks, and the recipients of alms. This community is largely defined through contrast with non-members, namely the pagani. Their faith is crucial, a distinction flagged unambiguously by the use of Christiani and pagani. But the contrast is also more complex. Episodes of un-Christian-like behaviour reveal that Asser perceived unity and respect for legitimate authority to be key characteristics of the Christiani. Such traits drew a distinction between them and the pagani, but also served as a warning: civil strife had no place in Alfred’s kingdom. The treatment of Halfdan and his followers illustrates that these group identities were not static, however: as the West Saxons could behave in an un-Christian manner, so too could the pagani outgrow their categorisation. Asser was not simply creating this group identity for his own amusement; he sought to persuade his audience of its applicability and desirability. Among the people who required convincing were the Welsh. This agenda is important in illuminating another dimension to Asser’s presentation of the pagani. Asser creates an origin legend of sorts for the pagani, drawing upon common origin legend motifs, treachery for example, to recount their settlement in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon 129

See above, 144–6.


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

Chronicle formed the basis for this account, but no less significant is his creative use of Welsh sources. Thus, Asser’s pagani are cast in the role of the Saxons in Historia Brittonum: they replace Hengist and Horsa as the treacherous pagans who are the greatest threat to the Welsh. In this way, Asser takes a presentation of the past key to the construction of Welsh identity in texts like Historia Brittonum and Armes Prydein and deploys it in the creation of his alternative community. Asser’s treatment of those within Alfred’s community was also part of this strategy of persuasion. Thus, the tyranny of the Mercians is a contrast to Alfred’s benevolence, while their reliance on West Saxon support illustrates the benefits of Alfredian overlordship. Crucial also is the claim that Anarawd of Gwynedd submitted to Alfred on the same terms as Æthelred of Mercia. The Mercians may be Angelcynn but the Welsh are awarded equal status in Alfred’s kingdom. What is important is their identity as Christians facing a common enemy under Alfred’s overlordship. Not all were convinced. Asser’s group identity was firmly rejected by the poet of Armes Prydein, who, as discussed above, had a very different take on English overlordship, but also turned Asser’s Christian–pagan dichotomy on its head. In this poem, it is the English who are once more the pagans, the enemy of a different Christian coalition.130 This is not to deny that Asser viewed the Welsh as being in certain ways distinct from their English neighbours in the Life of King Alfred. Indeed, Chapter 1 highlighted Asser’s contribution to the recognition of Wales as a geographical unit, and Chapter 2 illustrated his awareness of language as a distinction between peoples – Brittonic and English speakers in particular. An acknowledgement of such differences between certain groups contributes to the construction of identities. More important, however, is a belief that such differences are significant. In the Life of King Alfred, the Welsh are territorially and linguistically defined as distinct from the Angelcynn. But in Asser’s view what they share is more important. They are all Christians and members of Alfred’s political community, and this group identity transcends all others. According to Asser, being Welsh at Alfred’s court is altogether unimportant; there are peoples there from all sorts of different places, and their origins do not matter, because Alfred’s kingdom welcomes all.


See above, 133–4, 155.



Historia Brittonum, the Life of King Alfred, and Armes Prydein are all, in their own ways, texts about gentes. Historia Brittonum might justifiably be catalogued under the genre of origo gentis, beginning as it does with the origins of the Britons. But this origin legend does not come to an end with the arrival of the Britons in Britain; their subsequent interaction with other gentes shapes their contemporary situation. It is the future that concerns the poet of Armes Prydein, but a future that is only explicable with reference to a particular version of the past. This was the past as related in Historia Brittonum, and it was clearly to the poet’s liking. Here too the inhabitants of Britain are divided into gentes, the two juxtaposed gentes of most importance being the Britons and the English. To all intents and purposes, Asser’s interest lies not in gentes and their origins but in a single individual. Nevertheless, the resulting text is also much more than a biography; Asser reimagines the political landscape of Britain and the identities of its occupants. Common across all three texts is the ordering of the world into gentes, defined by a variety of ‘strategies of distinction’, including names, language, and origin legends. None of this is unusual. Many early medieval writers turned their attention to the construction of ethnic identities, and in some ways these texts simply blend into the crowd. The origin legend furnished for the Britons in Historia Brittonum, discussed in Chapter 3, is an illustrative example. Of the elements found in some combination in most origin legends of western Christian peoples in the middle ages (descent from Mannus/Alannus; descent from Japheth son of Noah; Trojan origins), Historia Brittonum includes all three.1 Similarly, in seeking the origins of the Britons in Troy, Nennius embarked along a well-trodden path, following in the footsteps of the compilers of the Fredegar Chronicle and the Liber historiae Francorum. This is not to say that there was nothing original about the strategies of distinction used in these texts. Sticking with the origin legend in Historia Brittonum, the tale is not simply a patchwork of common motifs: it has been tailored to construct a specific identity for the Britons. Thus, while the Franks fixated on illustrating their superiority over the Romans, it was the superiority of the Britons over their neighbours that concerned Nennius. Similarly, Historia Brittonum’s version of history draws on a number of known sources, but here too the end result is not simply a patchwork of this material. The account of Roman Britain illustrates this point clearly. Here, Nennius crafts a narrative that is far more favourable to the Britons than that found in his sources; there is no trace of the cowardly and faithless gens familiar from Gildas and Bede. The challenging of previous accounts of the past is a recurring theme, which reared its head in Chapters 3–5. Nennius was not prepared to toe Bede’s line when it came to recounting the conversion of the English, for example. Both the Life of King Alfred and Armes Prydein were drawn into this conversation. Particularly interesting is the changing depiction of the English and their relationship with the Britons across the three texts. Thus, Asser turns the tables on Historia Brittonum and 1

Reynolds, ‘Medieval “Origines Gentium”’, 375–7.


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

recasts the enemy of the Welsh; in his Life of King Alfred there is a new gormes to rally against. Historia Brittonum’s imagery is recycled, but to describe the pagani, the viking forces, rather than the English. This message was resolutely rejected by the poet of Armes Prydein, who reproduced and strengthened Historia Brittonum’s depiction of the English, dwelling on their paganism, their treachery, and their status as exiles. Asser might frown upon Anarawd of Gwynedd’s co-operation with the Northumbrians, but the poet welcomes gynhon Dulyn into the fold. The interaction between ethnic and religious identities is also evident here. Christianity is a key strategy of distinction in all three texts. In Armes Prydein there is a simple juxtaposition of the Christian Britons and pagan English. The poet pays no heed to the contemporary situation; the English remain the pagan followers of Hengist and Horsa. A similar juxtaposition is central to the narrative in the Life of King Alfred, but here Alfred’s followers are Christiani, the viking enemy pagani. Asser interlinks Christian and political identities: the inhabitants of Alfred’s new kingdom are defined by their Christianity and their acceptance of the king as ruler. The latter, to Asser’s mind, is a natural consequence of the former. Asser’s group identities are not wholly static, however. Conversion had little impact, but political circumstances did leave their mark. Halfdan’s pagani became Northanhymbri, perhaps a recognition of the legitimacy of the kingdom of York. There is even greater fluidity in Historia Brittonum. In its account of the settlement of the Saxons in Britain their paganism is stressed. Indeed, the poet of Armes Prydein was likely influenced by this depiction. However, the relationship between the Britons and the Saxons evolves in the ‘Northern History’. There is conflict still, but also co-operation, and crucially an account of the conversion of the Northumbrians. In this section of the text, any distinction between the Christian Britons and pagan English collapses. Yet where Asser depicts the inhabitants of his Christian community as equals, Nennius has a hierarchy. The Britons top the table: alongside the historical superiority over their neighbours conveyed by their origins, their own conversion directly from Rome, and their key role in spreading Christianity to Northumbria establish their spiritual superiority. This focus on the spiritual superiority of the Britons was likely in part a response to their unflattering depiction in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, a further example of the construction of identities as a contested process, a dialogue between texts. Scholars such as Bede, Nennius, and Asser were engaged in this process, but how relevant was their dialogue to the world beyond their own circle? How widespread was belief in these strategies of distinction? The echoing of certain ideas – such as the identity of the Welsh as Britons, the rightful inhabitants of all Britain – across the middle ages certainly suggests durability.2 Of the texts considered here, all three were likely the products of clerical environments. Asser’s background was at St Davids, perhaps too that of the poet of Armes Prydein.3 If the preface is to be believed, Historia Brittonum was the work of a pupil of Elfoddw, archbishop of Gwynedd.4 Their outputs were probably intended for broader consumption, however. Asser was certainly thinking of his colleagues in St Davids, but his biography is nevertheless dedicated to an Regarding the focus on the Britons as the rightful inhabitants of Britain, and the claim that their land was treacherously stolen from them, Thomas Charles-Edwards observes that there is enough consistency in the presentation of this narrative to suggest its ‘wide currency’: ‘The Making of Nations’, 27. 3 On the association of Armes Prydein with St Davids, see above, 19. 4 See above, 11, 144–5. 2



English king, and was presumably intended for his eyes too, and those of his court. The intended audiences of Historia Brittonum and Armes Prydein is a thornier issue. The former may have reached Merfyn Frych, who is named in one of the chronological calculations, but there is no concrete evidence that the text was intended for king and court – it was certainly not composed as dynastic propaganda. Armes Prydein is a call to arms to anyone who will listen, but likely intended specifically for the inhabitants of south Wales, the kingdoms of Dyfed and Glywysing.5 There is some evidence for the broader circulation of prophetic poetry – in oral form – in medieval Wales.6 However, it remains unclear how much emphasis any given inhabitant of Dyfed or Glywysing would have placed on their identity as the oldest inhabitants of the island of Britain.7 Most of these strategies of distinction are put to work to (re)create an identity for the Brittonic-speaking inhabitants of Wales as Britons. Thus, the Welsh are Brit(t) ones in the Latin texts, a gens that Nennius makes clear used to inhabit the entirety of the island of Britain. The more ambiguous Kymry is used in Armes Prydein, but here too the Britons are very clearly the gens that will occupy the territory o Vynaw hyt Lydaw (‘from Manaw to Brittany’) after the expulsion of the English.8 As discussed in Chapter 1, the connecting of a gens to a specific territory is not unusual, although the case of the Britons is complicated by the fact that this territory is in large part no longer under their control. The situation had changed considerably since their original settling of the island a mari usque ad mare (‘from sea to sea’).9 Historia Brittonum explains that the Picts were next to arrive, seizing a third of the island, followed by the Irish. These migrations constitute a distinct phase in the island’s history, the subsequent arrival of the Romans and English another. Chapter 4 highlighted the importance of this scheme for understanding Armes Prydein’s prophesied future. For the poet, the settlement of the Picts and Irish in the northern third of the island is acceptable: the land that will be possessed by the Britons after their victory does not include Alba. Not so the settlement of the English, who will be expelled from the island. Some migrations are more legitimate than others, then. For this model to work, however, the poet needs to turn a blind eye to certain developments; Hiberno-Scandinavian settlement in Britain is passed over in silence. The poet envisages the participation of gynhon Dulyn in the coalition but does not explain how their settlement in Britain is to be reconciled with the possession of the island south of the Forth by the Britons. Their relationship to the island of Britain is a key building block in the identity of the Britons. Yet this gens is not a monolithic whole, as Armes Prydein’s nomenclature illustrates. The Britons are a distinct group in the poet’s coalition, but a group that is itself a collection of smaller units, including the Cornyw and Cludwys, for example. Similarly, Historia Brittonum’s Britons form a single regnum under the rulership of Gwrtheyrn, but there is an acknowledgement too of smaller units within this larger whole. After ceding land to the English, it is these smaller kingdoms that remain. See above, 47–50. Marged Haycock points to Gerald of Wales’s claim that an old woman shouted a prophecy at King Henry II at St Davids: Prophecies, 18. 7 Cf. Thomas Charles-Edwards’s comment ‘we should not think that a British cowherd in the tenth century spent a fair proportion of his waking hours thinking what an ass Vortigern was’: ‘The Making of Nations’, 27. 8 APV, line 172 (ed. Williams, 6). 9 HB (Harl.), §9 (ed. Faral, III. 7). 5 6


History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales

Nevertheless, in Historia Brittonum, the identity of the inhabitants as Britons trumps their association with these kingdoms. Thus, Maelgwn, whose ancestor, Cunedda, had come from Manaw Gododdin, is said to be reigning apud Brittones…id est in regione Guenedotae (‘among the Britons… that is in the region of Gwynedd’).10 The king of Gwynedd is a king of the Britons and the origins of his dynasty lie in the ‘Old North’. In Chapter 1 I drew attention to the unusual absence of an association between the gens and a regnum and/or ruling dynasty in the case of the Britons. In Historia Brittonum, the regnum that is important for the identity of the Britons is to be located in a particular version of the past. Alongside names and accounts of origins, language is another strategy of distinction that constructs this British identity. In the Life of King Alfred and Historia Brittonum, language is frequently highlighted as a key difference between the gentes inhabiting Britain through the inclusion of place- and river-names in multiple languages. By observing, for example, that an island is called Thanet in Saxonica lingua (‘in the Saxon language’) but Britannico autem sermone Ruim (‘in British speech Ruim’), Asser draws attention to linguistic difference.11 None of these texts explicitly states that language is an important strategy of distinction; its significance is instead revealed through the treatment of vernaculars. The provision of place-names in multiple languages establishes the existence of distinct linguistic groups, but both Historia Brittonum and Armes Prydein go further still in associating a gens with their language. The poet of Armes Prydein thus turns to Old English to describe the English fleeing like foxes (ffoxas, line 66), while Hengist’s command for his followers to betray the Britons is recorded in Old English in Historia Brittonum (§46). In both cases, turning to Old English is a choice, and the decision to do so in these specific contexts significant. Linguistic difference is commented upon in accounts of conflict between the two gentes. As they betray the Britons in one instance and as they flee from the Britons in another, attention is drawn to the different language spoken by the enemy. Language, then, is a key difference between the two gentes. Crucially, the difference is between English and Brittonic speakers: language not only marks the Britons as distinct from the English, but also constructs the identity of Brittonic speakers themselves as a single gens. This is only part of the story, however. In the Life of King Alfred, the geographical unit of Wales is described unambiguously for the first time. Thus, ‘omnes regiones dexteralis Britanniae partis’ (‘all the districts of the southern part of Wales’) belonged to Alfred, Britannia here referring to Wales.12 The most striking evidence is Asser’s claim that Offa of Mercia built a dyke ‘inter Britanniam atque Merciam de mari usque ad mare’.13 Although less certain, the reference to the mediterraneos Britones who live between Mercia and the western sea might be a valiant attempt to define the inhabitants of this Britannia, the Welsh of Wales.14 Asser is our earliest witness to the construction of Offa’s Dyke, but the information he provides is unreliable: the dyke did not in fact stretch from sea to sea. This misinformation is especially curious as Asser’s journey to Saxonia presumably took him to the south of the Dyke; in other words,

HB (Harl.), §62 (ed. Faral, III. 42). Asser, Life of King Alfred, §9 (ed. Stevenson, 7–8). 12 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §80 (ed. Stevenson, 66; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 96). 13 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §14 (ed. Stevenson, 12; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 71): ‘between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea’. 14 Asser, Life of King Alfred, §7 (ed. Stevenson, 6–7; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 69). 10 11



he certainly would have known better.15 As observed by Thomas Charles-Edwards, Asser was likely here echoing Gildas’s description of the wall built by the Romans in northern Britain as extending a mari usque ad mare.16 Also significant, however, is Historia Brittonum’s claim that the Britons once inhabited the island of Britain a mari usque ad mare.17 Asser is not only echoing Historia Brittonum, but is also continuing its narrative through redefining the parameters of the Britannia inhabited by the Welsh. The Welsh of Asser’s day do not occupy the entire island from sea to sea; Britannia is a much more modest unit, juxtaposed to Saxonia. To understand this development, we need to look to the context of the biography’s composition. As discussed in Chapter 1, mediterraneos Britones is a translation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s Norðwealas. Albeit not altogether consistently, Asser’s source did endeavour to distinguish between the Britons of Wales (Norðwealas), Cornwall (Westwealas), and Strathclyde (Stræcled Wealas). Asser’s redefinition of Britannia might therefore be driven in part by the perception of Wales and the Welsh in West Saxon circles. The discussion in Chapter 5 of the political and spiritual community Asser sought to create in his biography is important here too. The reduction in size of this Welsh Britannia enables the emergence of Alfred as ‘omnium Brittanniae insulae Christianorum rector’ (‘ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain’).18 The Welsh could be identified as a gens occupying the territory to the west of Offa’s Dyke, but their identity also remained rooted in their status as inhabitants of the island of Britain. In Historia Brittonum, this identity was constructed through reference to their origins and status as the original inhabitants of the island, but in the Life of King Alfred it is the participation of the contemporary Welsh in a political community that encompasses all Christians of the island that is important. The fight might go on in Armes Prydein Vawr; the poet might envisage the retaking of this land and the expulsion of the English across the sea. Asser is adamant, however, that a new status quo has been established. Offa’s Dyke would have lasting power as a symbol to define Wales, as its use in the Welsh laws testifies, but it is in the Life of King Alfred that we find the earliest expression of this tradition.19 The dyke is not introduced with any fanfare in the biography – it is mentioned in passing, an additional detail akin to the statement that Burgred of Mercia’s marriage occurred at Chippenham. But Asser’s words are in fact carefully crafted to echo both De excidio Britanniae and Historia Brittonum, forming an ideologically charged statement that serves to redefine the landscape of Britain. Indeed, perhaps more than anyone else, it was Asser who invented Wales.

Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 419–20. Gildas, DEB, §18 (ed. and transl. Winterbottom, 22, 94); Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 420. See also Brady, Writing the Welsh Borderlands, 83–4. 17 HB (Harl.), §9 (ed. Faral, III. 7). 18 Asser, Life of King Alfred, dedication (ed. Stevenson, 1; transl. Keynes and Lapidge, 67). 19 Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 419; R. Thomas, ‘Ystyr Anghyfiaith’, 80. Offa’s Dyke would have a long history as a symbol of national identity. For its treatment in a twentieth-century context, see Rosser, ‘“Ynom mae y Clawdd?”’. 15 16



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Aber Perydon  49 and n. 205 Aber Santwic (‘the estuary of Sandwich’)  48 (Map 1), 49, 84 n. 197 Adomnán, Vita Columbae  70 Æthelbald, West Saxon king (ob. 860)  34, 71, 164–6 Æthelfrith, Northumbrian king (ob. ca 616)  22, 78 n. 156, 80–1, 87, 140 Æthelred, Mercian ruler (ob. 911)  43, 151, 156, 157, 158, 159, 167, 172 Æthelred, West Saxon king (ob. 871)  160 Æthelstan, English king (ob. 939)  17, 128, 155, 159 Æthelwulf, West Saxon king (ob. 858)  14, 16, 34, 35, 50, 134, 151, 152, 153, 154, 158–9 rebellion against  14 n. 76, 34, 71, 164–6 Ailego  49 Alfred, English king (ob. 899) overlordship over the Welsh  21 n. 5, 43, 155–6, 166–7 pilgrimage to Rome  151 and n. 12, 153 production of Old English texts at his court  55, 56, 150, 151 relations with Northumbria  168, 169, 170 Anarawd ap Rhodri, king of Gwynedd (ob. 916)  43, 156 n. 43, 167 alliance with the Northumbrians  15, 128, 166–8, 169, 171, 174 submission to Alfred  43, 155, 156, 159, 167, 172 Angelcynn  22, 55 n.18, 150, 151, 152, 155, 159, 172 Anghyfiaith (‘not of the same language’)  54, 87 Anglesey  27, 61 n. 61 ambiguous reference in Armes Prydein  18, 36, 125 n. 28, 129 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  37, 42–3, 51, 71, 85 n. 206, 131, 152, 153, 158, 159, 165, 167 and the construction of English identity  16, 149, 150, 155, 171 compilation of the Common Stock  160 distinguishes between the Britons of Wales, Cornwall and Strathclyde  35, 42, 51, 177 treatment of the viking armies in  161, 168–9, 170

Antonine Itinerary  60, 62 and n. 75 Antonine Wall  28, 29, 128 n. 46 See also Gwawl Armenia  23–4 Armes Dydd Brawd (‘The Prophecy of Judgement Day’)  139 Armes Prydein Vawr (‘The Great Prophecy of Britain’) coalition of peoples to drive the English from Britain  17, 18 n. 97, 28, 29–30, 36, 83 inclusion of the Hiberno-Scandinavians at odds with the poet’s prophecy  18, 127–9, 133, 134, 147, 161, 175 the Irish providing support to the coalition before returning home  125–7, 129 compared with other prophetic poetry in the Book of Taliesin  130–1, 132 composed in the tenth century, likely in south Wales  17–18, 19, 174 depiction of the English, influenced by Historia Brittonum  19, 85, 131, 132, 133–4, 136, 137, 138–9, 174 grievances including the payment of taxes to the reeves of the mechteyrn  17, 49, 86, 131, 139, 146, 155 land to be possessed by the Britons will not include Alba  28–9, 38, 125, 128, 175 meaning of Kymry in  36–42, 51, 83 poet’s possible familiarity with Asser’s Life of King Alfred  15, 84 n. 197, 85, 174 use of English loan words in  84–5, 86–7, 176 Asser Bishop of Sherborne and ecclesiastical position at Exeter  16, 57, 61, 70, 71, 72, 73–4, 165–6 of St Davids  14, 15, 16, 50, 51, 55, 56, 57, 58, 61, 62, 64, 70, 74, 174 Old Testament name  21, 50 role in translating Old English texts  55, 151 scholar at Alfred’s court  14, 15, 16 n. 82, 51, 55, 56, 58, 70, 74, 153–4, 155, 172


Index Asser’s Life of King Alfred account of Alfred’s summoning of scholars in  14 and n. 76, 55, 153–4, 171 Alfred’s genealogy in  63, 90, 133 n. 76, 134–5, 149 audience of  15–16, 18, 51, 56, 69, 74, 149, 156, 163, 166, 171, 174–5 authenticity and survival of  14 British place- and river-names in  15, 56–75, 86, 176 Abon (Avon), river  59, 62, 67, 68 (Map 2), 70 Arx Cynuit (Countisbury)  60–2, 67, 68 (Map 2), 70, 72, 73, 74 Cairceri (Cirencester)  63–4, 65, 67, 68 (Map 2), 69, 87. See also Kaer Geri Cairuuisc (Exeter)  58, 59, 64–5, 66–7, 68 (Map 2), 69, 162 Coit Maur (Selwood)  65–6, 67, 68 (Map 2), 69, 71, 72, 75. See also Selwood Durngueir (Dorchester)  49, 57, 62, 67, 68 (Map 2), 69, 70 Frauu (Frome), river  57–8, 59, 62, 67, 68 (Map 2), 70, 72–3 Guilou (Wylye), river  59–60, 62, 67, 68 (Map 2), 70 Ruim (Thanet)  62–3, 67, 68 (Map 2) 69, 176. See also Thanet Tigguocobauc (Nottingham)  66–7, 68 (Map 2), 69, 72, 73, 75 Uuisc (Exe), river  58–9, 62, 64–5, 67, 68 (Map 2), 69, 70, 162 Cambro-Latin features of  56, 59, 76, 160 Christiani in  152, 153, 161, 163, 164–6, 170, 171, 174 describes Alfred as Angul Saxonum rex  43, 150, 151, 152, 155, 159 emphasises Alfred’s generosity to those beyond the borders of his kingdom  154–5 influence of Historia Brittonum on  59, 62–5, 67, 69, 70, 74, 90, 150, 163–4, 172, 174, 177 negative depiction of the Mercians in  15, 151, 156–9, 172 pagani in  85, 149 and n. 2, 152, 159, 160–4, 166, 168–71, 172, 174 parallels between Alfred and Charlemagne in  56, 70, 154–5 positive depiction of Alfredian overlordship over the Welsh  15, 155–6, 157, 159, 166–7

presents Alfred as ruler of all Christians in Britain  16, 152, 155, 159, 164, 166, 171, 177 reports events on the Continent  152–3 use of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  14, 15, 16, 33, 34–5, 42–3, 51, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 62, 63, 65, 67, 75, 135, 149, 151, 152, 153, 155, 159, 160, 161–3, 164, 168, 177 Welsh kingdoms in  43–4, 157–8 Auraicept na n-Éces  53 Bede De temporum ratione  96–7, 98–9, 104, 107 n. 120, 111 n. 147 Historia ecclesiastica  25–6, 30, 36, 53, 55 n. 18, 70, 71, 91, 97, 135 n. 95, 163 account of Roman Britain largely follows Orosius  104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 112, 114, 115–16 attitude towards the Britons  13, 75, 144, 173, 174 compared with the ‘Northern History’  78–9, 80–1, 141–4 Picts and Irish in  123–4 settlement of the English in  130, 131–3, 137–8, 139 vocabulary used for kingdoms  42, 45–6, 47 Breudwyt Maxen Wledic (‘The Dream of Emperor Maxen’)  112 Brittania  24 n. 29 extent of  26, 28–31, 44, 45, 51, 125, 147, 175 political unity of  25–6, 28, 30–1, 44, 45, 51, 175 to mean Wales  32–3, 35, 42, 50, 172, 176–7 See also Prydyn, Prydein Britto  1, 2, 92, 93, 94, 95, 98, 99, 100–101, 103, 119, 122, 123, 131 See also Brutus Brit(t)ones  6, 31, 51, 175 identity of the Welsh as Britons important in Historia Brittonum  24, 31, 46–7, 82, 87, 176 mediterraneos Britones  34–6, 44, 50, 51, 158, 176, 177 movement away from referring to the Welsh as Britones in the twelfth century  3, 6, 31–2 See also Britto, Brutus, Brython, origin legends Brunanburh, battle of  17 and n. 94, 128 Brut y Tywysogyon  9, 161 and n. 75 Brutus  30, 92 and n. 14, 93, 122 See also Britto


Index Brycheiniog  43, 157 Brython  24 n. 29, 37, 38–42 Burgred, Mercian king (ob. 874)  14, 34–5, 151, 156–7, 158–9, 177 Cadell, king of Powys  12, 13, 45, 78 n. 156, 90 n. 7 Cadwaladr, in Armes Prydein  17, 37, 38, 40, 41 and n. 155, 46, 84, 131 Cadwallon ap Cadfan, king of Gwynedd (ob. 634)  7 n. 35, 25, 37 and n. 128, 133 n. 80, 140, 142, 144 Caer Weir  48 (Map 1), 49 and n. 208 See also Isle of Wight Caer Wynt (Winchester)  48 (Map 1), 49 Campus Gai, battle of  46, 141, 143 and n. 151 Ceredigion  36, 43–4, 46, 156 n. 43, 167 Charlemagne  56, 70, 154 and n. 37, 155 Christianity and Bede’s gens Anglorum  47 conversion of the Britons  107, 118–19, 120, 145–6, 174 English  107, 133, 144–6, 171, 173, 174 Irish  127, 129, 145 Scandinavians  168–70 emphasis on the Christian identity of the coalition in Armes Prydein  17, 126, 128, 134, 138–9, 172, 174. See also St David importance to the identity of the Britons in Historia Brittonum  5, 120, 133, 138, 146, 174 See also Asser, Life of King Alfred, Christiani in Cornwall  31, 56 n. 26, 71, 72, 154 Brittonic language of  5, 57, 58, 61–2, 66, 72, 73–4, 87 Cornubia in the Life of King Alfred  32, 33, 34, 36, 42, 72, 151 inhabitants called Cornyw in Armes Prydein  36–7, 38, 39, 40, 42, 50, 51, 175 inhabitants called Westwealas in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  35, 51, 177 possible intended audience for the Life of King Alfred  16, 74, 166 Culhwch ac Olwen  30 and n. 81, 37 Cunedda  26–8, 29, 45, 46–7, 95, 122, 123, 126, 129, 176 cymod, meaning of  41 n.155, 127 Cymry, meaning of  6, 32, 37 and n. 127, 54 See also Armes Prydein Vawr, meaning of Kymry in Cynan, in Armes Prydein  17, 37, 38, 40, 41 and n. 158, 84

David, St  17, 19, 126, 127 and n. 34, 128, 129, 134, 139 Dyfed  11, 21, 28, 35, 43, 46, 50, 159 called upon in Armes Prydein  19 and n. 105, 47, 49, 50, 175 kingdom in south Wales which submitted to Alfred according to Asser  32, 36, 43, 45, 157 settlement of Irish in  26, 27, 47, 122 viking attack in 878  60, 61, 74, 152 Dygogan Awen (‘The awen foretells’)  130, 134 n. 84 Eadburh, West Saxon queen  14 n. 76, 151, 156, 157 and n. 48 Eamont, council at  35, 159 Edmund, English king (ob. 946)  17, 63, 128 Einhard, Vita Karoli  11 n. 63, 56, 154 and n. 37 Emrys  12, 33, 45, 78 n. 156, 139, 140 and n. 132, 146 Fredegar Chronicle  91, 101–2, 111–12, 117, 119, 173 Geoffrey of Monmouth  9, 26 n. 41, 30, 104 n. 104, 113, 123 n. 12 Gerald of Wales  7, 15, 175 n. 6 Germanus, St  12, 13 Gildas, De excidio Britanniae  13, 25, 26, 70 n. 111, 77, 144, 163 n. 89, 164, 166, 177 account of Roman Britain different to Historia Brittonum  104, 105, 107, 109, 111, 112, 114–17, 120, 136–7, 173 depiction of Picts and Irish in  115, 123, 125 n. 22, 133 n. 79 depiction of the Saxons in  91, 130, 131–2, 133 and n. 79, 137–8, 139 Glaswawt Taliesin  130, 131 n. 59, 134 n. 84 Glywysing  21, 32, 33, 36, 43, 45, 47 n. 201, 156, 157, 158 n. 55, 158 n. 56 called upon in Armes Prydein  17, 19 and n. 105, 47, 49, 50, 175 Gododdin, Y  18 n. 95, 29, 134 n. 84 gormes  26, 125, 126, 127, 129, 174 Gueith Linn Garan  see Nechtansemere, battle of Guthrum, king of the East Angles (ob. 890)  168, 169–70, 171 Gwawl  28–9, 28 n. 66, 29, n. 72, 108, 128, n. 46 Gwent  32, 43, 46 n. 190, 156, 157, 158 n. 55 Gweryt  28–9, 28 n. 64, 128 n. 46 Gwrthefyr  12, 13, 14, 76, 141, 163


Index Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern)  12, 13, 28 n. 66, 33, 63, 76, 77, 78 n. 156, 92, 130, 133, 136, 139, 140, 141, 146, 163 kingdom of  25, 26, 28, 31, 44, 45, 46, 47, 175 mentioned in Armes Prydein  47 and n. 199, 137 negative depiction in Historia Brittonum  137–8 use of interpreter at gathering with Saxons in Historia Brittonum  77, 85, 87 Gwynedd  13, 15, 18, 19 n. 105, 21, 25, 36, 37, 45, 46, 79, 80, 87, 145, 155, 156, 158 n. 53, 167, 172, 174 associated with Gwrtheyrn in Armes Prydein  47, 137 expulsion of the Irish by Cunedda from  26, 27, 46–7, 95, 140, 176. See also Cunedda place of composition of Historia Brittonum  19, 75, 79, 174 relations with Northumbria and Mercia in the ‘Northern History’  79, 140, 142, 143 gynhon  17, 127, 128, 130, 133 n. 82, 133–4, 147, 161, 174, 175 Halfdan, king of the Northumbrians (ob. 870)  60, 168–71, 174 Harleian Chronicle  11, 12, 38, 45, 75, 130, 158, 167 compilation of  11 n. 57, 11 n. 59, 96 n. 48 shared source with Historia Brittonum  45 n. 179, 79, 142 and n. 145, 143 and n. 151 Harleian Genealogies  11, 12, 26, 27–8, 79, 106 n. 110, 109, 111, 112–13 Hengist  44, 76, 77, 85 and n. 206, 86, 87, 133, 137, 140, 141, 176 and Horsa  12, 13, 63, 172 focus on their paganism and treachery in Historia Brittonum  133, 136, 145, 146, 163 in Armes Prydein  17, 130, 131, 146, 174 Historia Brittonum account of Roman Britain  91, 103–19, 130, 140, 173 Caritius  108–9 Claudius  106–7, 111, 115 Constantine  109 Constantius  113, 114 Julius Caesar  25, 104–6, 111, 112 n. 157, 115, 116 Maximianus  109, 110–11, 112 Maximus  109–10, 112, 114, 115, 116

Severus 113, 114 Severus (3rd emperor)  107–9, 110, 111, 113, 115, 125 See also Gildas, De excidio Britanniae, account of Roman Britain different to Historia Brittonum composed in 829/30 and attributed to Nennius  10, 11 epithets in  22, 77, 78 and n. 156, 80–1, 82, 87, 141 includes certain Old English words  76–7, 85–6, 176 includes Welsh names, prepositions, and other words  76–8, 78 n. 155, 78 n. 156, 78 n. 157, 81–2 list of cities  12, 49 n. 207, 63–4, 64–5, 78 more positive account of the Britons than those of Gildas and Bede  13, 75, 104–109, 114–17, 120, 130, 131–2, 136–8, 139, 142, 143, 173 ‘Northern History’ in  11 n. 59, 12, 44, 45 n. 179, 76, 79, 80–2, 87, 121, 140–6, 174 recensions Harleian recension, together with a chronicle and genealogies in Harley 3859  10–11, 75, 79–80, 144–5 Nennian recension includes preface  11–12, 33, 95–6, 145, 174 Vatican recension  63–4, 64 n. 91, 65, 97, 98, 100–101 refers to Welsh kingdoms as regiones  27 and n. 55, 44–7 responds to Bede’s accusation that the Britons did not assist in converting the English  13, 75, 144–5, 173, 174 shifting depiction of the Picts and the Irish in  124–5, 126 See also origin legends Historia Gruffud vab Kenan  54 Hyfaidd, king of Dyfed  43, 50 Hywel ap Cadell, Welsh king (ob. 950)  17 n. 92, 21, 35, 159 Hywel ap Rhys, king of Glywysing (ob. 886)  21 Iaith (‘language’), to mean ‘people’  54 See also anghyfiaith Irish identity, expressions of  23, 24 and n. 25, 53, 94–5, 117 See also origin legends Isidore of Seville  5, 96, 122 Chronica  96, 104–5, 110, 113 Etymologiae  1, 2, 7, 93, 94


Index Isle of Man  30, 78, 79–80 Irish settlement of  26, 27, 47, 122 Manaw, not to be confused with Manaw Gododdin  29 n. 70 Merfyn Frych had come from  27, 80 Isle of Wight  30, 78 n. 155 possible identification of Armes Prydein’s Caer Weir  49 settlement of  134–5, 135 n. 95, 149 Jerome, Chronicle  1, 2, 92 n. 14, 96, 97, 98–9, 101, 104, 106, 107, 108 and n. 127, 109, 110, 112, 113, 115, 119 Jesus College 20 Genealogies  29 Jones, J. R. (ob. 1970)  8 and n. 44, 10 Julius Caesar, Bellum Gallicum  105

treated as distinct from the West Saxons in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  150–1 under Alfred’s authority from 886 and presented as part of a community of Angelcynn  55 n. 18, 150–1, 155, 159, 171, 172 See also Asser, Life of King Alfred, negative depiction of the Mercians; Offa’s Dyke Merfyn Frych, king of Gwynedd (ob. 844)  10, 13, 26, 27, 79–80, 175 Merfynion  13, 21, 26, 27, 43, 44 n. 172 Moliant Cadwallon  25, 37 and n. 128 nationalism, theories of  7–10, 123, 125 nations, construction of  7–10 Nechtanesmere, battle of  78–9 Northumbria  37 n. 128, 66, 154 Asser’s account of civil strife in  160 n. 66, 164, 165, 166 in the ‘Northern History’  12, 13, 22, 44, 78–9, 80, 81, 82, 133, 140–6, 174 See also Anarawd ap Rhodri’s alliance with the Northumbrians; Halfdan; York, kingdom of

Kaer Geri (Cirencester), reeves of  42, 48 (Map 1), 49, 50 Kent  44, 62, 140 and n. 133, 145, 163, 165 Saxon settlement of  25, 44, 49, 76, 78, 86, 135, 137 Lebor Gabála Érenn  117, 121, 123 n. 12 Liber historiae Francorum  91, 102–3, 117, 119, 173 Liber pontificalis  107 Livy, Ab urbe condita  96 and n. 45 Lucius, king of the Britons  25, 47, 107 Mabinogi, Four Branches of  25, 26 n. 41, 29 n. 72, 126 Máel Sechnaill, king of Ireland (ob. 1022)  22 n. 12, 23 Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd  13, 26, 44, 45, 46, 140, 176 Manaw Manaw Gododdin  26, 27, 29, 46, 176 marking territory of the Britons in Armes Prydein  28–9, 128 n. 46, 175 See also Isle of Man, Manaw, not to be confused with Manaw Gododdin Mawl Hywel ap Goronwy  37 mediterraneos Britones  see Brit(t)ones Mercia, Mercians  14, 32, 33, 35–6, 44, 46, 153 and Gwynedd in the seventh century  79, 140, 141, 142 focus on their paganism in the ‘Northern History’  143, 145–6 inhabitants sometimes identified as the Lloegyr referred to in Armes Prydein  17 and n. 95, 18 relations with the Welsh in the ninth century  15, 34–6, 43, 156 n. 43, 158 and n. 53, 167

Offa, king of the Mercians (ob. 796)  151, 156, 157 Offa’s Dyke  32, 36, 50, 51, 75, 157, 158, 176, 177 Olaf Guthfrithson, king of Dublin and York (ob. 941)  19 n. 105, 128, 160 ‘Old North’, the  13, 28, 40, 79, 83, 140, 176 Origin legends Bretons  109, 111–12, 118 Britons  89, 91, 92–103, 122, 123, 147, 173. See also Britto common motifs of  90–1, 92, 94, 100, 102, 117, 119, 121, 122, 123, 130, 131, 132–3, 134, 136, 139, 149, 163, 171, 173 definition of  89–90 English  25, 49, 63, 76, 77, 85–6, 122, 129–40, 146–7 Franks  2, 91, 93, 94, 95, 101–103, 111–12, 117–19, 135 n. 94, 173 Irish  26, 27–8, 94–5, 115, 117, 121–4, 129 Picts  26, 123–4, 129 Origo gentis romanae  96 Orosius, Historiarum adversum paganos libri VII  104, 105–6, 106–7, 108, 109, 110, 112, 113 n. 164, 115–16, 120 Oswald, king of Northumbria (ob. 642)  44 n. 176, 78 n. 156, 80, 133 n. 80, 141, 142, 143, 145


Index Oswiu, king of Northumbria (ob. 670)  140, 141, 142, 143 Patrick, St  12, 127, 129, 136 n. 103, 145 Paul the Deacon, Historia Romana  97, 98, 99 Penda, king of the Mercians (ob. 655)  46, 142, 143, 145 Pillar of Eliseg  111, 158 and n. 53 Powys  13, 36, 43, 44, 45, 46, 54, 81, 90 and n. 7, 142, 158, 159 n. 58 Prosper of Aquitaine, Epitoma chronicon  11 n. 59, 92 n. 14, 95–6, 96 n. 48, 98, 99, 104, 108, 109, 110 and n. 145, 112, 113, 115, 119 Prydyn, Prydein  24 n. 29, 30 n. 75, 125 Rhun ab Urien  13, 78 n. 157, 79 and n. 163, 133, 140, 141, 144, 145, 146, 171 Samson, St, Lives of  118 Saxonia  32, 33–4, 34 n. 109, 36, 42, 72, 151, 165, 166, 176, 177 Selwood  71, 164, 165 See also Coit Maur Sherborne, diocese of   71–2, 73, 165, 166 See also Asser, Bishop of Sherborne and ecclesiastical position at Exeter Strathclyde  37–8, 42, 78, 128 n. 46 inhabitants of called Cludwys in Armes Prydein  36–8, 39, 40, 42, 51, 175 called Stræcled Wealas in the AngloSaxon Chronicle  35, 51, 177

called Strathcluttenses in the Life of King Alfred  42 Suetonius  106 and n. 110, 112 and n. 157 Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini  110 ‘Table of Nations’, the  2, 5, 92–5, 118, 120 Thanet  13, 28, 48 (Map 1), 49, 69, 76, 130, 136, 137 See also Ruim Trojan origins  see origin legends, Britons; origin legends, Franks Urien Rheged  12–13, 14, 54, 141 Virgil Aeneid  96, 97, 99 Georgics  96 Vita Alcuini  56, 154 Vita Griffini filii Conani  109 Wallia  6, 32, 50 Welsh, the Norðwealas  35, 51, 177 Walenses  3, 6, 32, 50 See also Cymry; Brit(t)ones Woden  90, 132–3, 133 n. 75 Wye, river  42, 49 Yn wir dymbi Romani kar  130, 131, 132 York, kingdom of  128 and n. 46, 167–8, 170, 174



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