Nennius

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The three main writers on the Dark Ages are Gildas (5th Cent), Bede (672/3 – 26 May 735) and "Nennius" (c830). Of these, most is known about Bede. Both Bede and Nennius use Gildas as a source, but both clearly have other sources, some of which may be lost. All three have been used as a basis for "Arthurian" legends, although neither Gildas nor Bede name an "Arthur" as such. Of these three authors Nennius is the most "pro-Welsh"

Life

Nennius — or Nemnius or Nemnivus — was a Welsh monk of the 9th century. He has traditionally been attributed with the authorship of the Historia Brittonum, based on the prologue affixed to that work. This attribution is now widely considered a secondary (10th century) tradition. The traditional Nennius was a student of Elvodugus, commonly identified with the bishop Elfodd of Bangor who convinced British ecclesiastics to accept the Continental dating for Easter in 768 (much later than the Anglo-Saxons), and who died in 809 according to the Annales Cambriae. Welsh traditions include Nennius with Elbodug and others said to have escaped the massacre of Welsh monks associated with the Battle of Chester, although the timing seems impossible given the battle was c. 616. The Prologue, in which Nennius introduces his purpose and sources for writing the British History, first appears in a manuscript from the twelfth century, and so the prevailing view is that Nennius was a later compiler of a series of much earlier set of texts.

Works

Nennius was traditionally credited with having written the Historia Brittonum c. 830. The Historia Brittonum was highly influential, becoming a major contributor to the Arthurian legend, in particular for its inclusion of events relevant to debate about the historicity of King Arthur. It also includes the legendary origins of the Picts, Scots, St. Germanus and Vortigern, and documents events associated with the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the 7th century as contributed by a Northumbrian document which is believed lost. According to one version of the text it was written no earlier than the "fourth year of [the reign of] king Mermenus" (who has been identified as Merfyn Frych ap Gwriad - "Merfyn the Freckled", king of Gwynedd). Historians have conservatively assigned 828 to the earliest date for the work, which is consistent with the statement in chapter four of one text that "from the Passion of Christ 796 years have passed. But from his Incarnation are 831 years". However another text gives a slightly different date, implying completion around 858:

  • "This history therefore has been compiled from a wish to benefit my inferiors, not from envy of those who are superior to me, in the 858th year of our Lord's incarnation, and in the 24th year of Mervin, king of the Britons, and I hope that the prayers of my betters will be offered up for me in recompence of my labour."

As Merfyn ruled for less than 20 years this text has obviously picked up an error. Professor David Dumville revisited the stemmatics of the various recensions in the 1980's (he published the Vatican version). Dumville branded the Nennian preface (Prefatio Nennii) a late forgery, and believed that the work underwent several anonymous revisions before reaching the forms that now survive in the various families of manuscripts. Notably, the preface that contains the actual name of ‘Nennius’ is only to be found only in later versions. Dumville's view was largely accepted by current scholarship, though not without dissent.

The Historia Brittonum was extensively copied in medieval times, and it is those copies which exist today. There are some significant differences between the versions, and almost every surviving copy has some omission or addition as compared with the others. One problem with this text is that modern scholars cannot establish which manuscript is the most authentic version, due to the intermingling with later Welsh tradition and possibly with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae written around 1136 and itself based in parts on Nennius. Unfortunately it would appear that Monmouth's "Historia", although written much later, was used by medieval scribes to "correct" some versions of Nennius.

One thing which is missing from Nennius is any mention of the legend concerning the Votadini. In the 1st century the Romans recorded the Votadini as a British tribe. Between 138–162 they came under direct Roman military rule as occupants of the region between Hadrian's and the Antonine Walls. Then when the Romans drew back to Hadrian's Wall the Votadini became a friendly buffer state. By about 470, a new kingdom of Gododdin (best known as the subject of the 6th-century Welsh poem Y Gododdin) had emerged covering most of the original Votadini territory, while the southern part between the Tweed and the Tyne formed its own separate kingdom called Brynaich. Cunedda, legendary founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in north Wales, is said to have been a Gododdin chieftain who migrated south-west about this time.

Nennius' history ends with Ida of Bernicia who died c.559. Bryneich or Brynaich was most likely the name of the native Brittonic kingdom, whose name was then adopted by the Anglian settlers who rendered it in Old English as Bernice or Beornice. Ida's grandson Æthelfrith (Æðelfriþ), united Deira with his own kingdom by force around the year 604. He ruled the two kingdoms (united as Northumbria) until he was defeated and killed by Rædwald of East Anglia (who had given refuge to Edwin, son of Ælle, king of Deira) around the year 616. Shortly before his death Æthelfrith defeated the Welsh at the Battle of Chester and virtually exterminated the monks based at Bangor-on-Dee. Bede had written extensively on this and so Nennius should have been aware of it, but possibly chooses to end his history before this major Welsh defeat.

Analysis of Nennius reveals the following themes:

Trojans in Britain

Mapping Roman sites and later monastic sites in North Wales indicates a continuing occupation of these locations after the Roman departure. This may indicate some social continuity or could be simply the effect of people chosing where to settle for similar reasons in terms of topography (including transport routes), local resources (including minerals) and the separation of settlements based on economic and administrative factors. See: Roman Chester for more on the infrastructure left by the Romans.

The Historia Brittonum describes the unlikely settlement of Britain by Trojan expatriates and states that Britain took its name after Brutus, a descendant of the mythical Trojan Aeneas.

This expands considerably upon the epic Aeneid of the Roman poet Virgil which only has Aeneas get as far as Rome after much wandering and various adventures including a brief romance with Queen Dido of Carthage. The Historia Brittonum states that "The island of Britain derives its name from Brutus, a Roman consul" who conquered Spain. This is ultimately derived from Isidore of Seville's popular 7th-century work Etymologiae, in which it was speculated that Britain was named after the Roman general Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus (180 BC – 113 BC), who pacified parts of Spain in 138 BC. Isidore's book is now considered to be a mosaic of pieces borrowed from previous writers, both supposedly sacred and definitely profane and cobbled together in a haphazard manner. There is some evidence to suggest that Pope John Paul II considered nominating Isidore as patron saint of the Internet - perhaps a rare example of Papal humour.

The name Britain actually most likely originates from the Common Brittonic term "*Pritanī". An early written reference to the British Isles may derive from the works of the Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia (modern-day Marseille) who lived in the 4th Cent BC. Later Greek writers such as Diodorus of Sicily and Strabo who quote Pytheas' use of variants such as Πρεττανική (Prettanikē), "The Britannic [land, island]", and nēsoi brettaniai, "Britannic islands", with "*Pritanī" being a Celtic word that might mean "the painted ones" or "the tattooed folk", referring to body decoration. The Roman word Picti, "the Picts", also means "painted".

Nennius is presumably trying to illustrate the dual heritage of the Romans and the Britons, which makes some sense in that he was a member of a church which was a survival of the Roman "occupation" of Wales. He borrows from Vergil the idea that the Roman Emperors are descended from Aeneas (Vergil apparently invented that as a form of flattery) and mixes in the legends of Macsen Wledig which introduce both Roman imperial and British bloodlines into the ancestors of Welsh kings. Where his Romano-British history can be confirmed from other sources, he frequently gets names and dates confused and makes many of the Roman usurpers into British kings

Nennius has even crazier ideas about the settlement of Ireland, which was apparently in part colonised by a Scythian, expelled by Egyptians, after many years of wandering and via Spain. There is, one might suppose, some hint here of a Celtic migration from Iberia, but it would appear that Nennius took the idea from Bede who believed this to be the origin of the Picts. The Scythians were considered extremely barbaric by ancient writers and it may be that they were therefore considered to be the ancestors of any other "barbaric" people.

Germanus

Saint Germanus turns up frequently as an active character in Nennius. He is a pious visitor from the continent who opposes the tyranny of Vortigern and brings down divine retribution on those who deserve it.

Nennius mentions Germanus (see: Mold Cope) referring to an apparently now lost biography, but makes no menthion of any battle near Mold. A conflict is mentioned, without any location and it is said that:

  • "The Blessed man was unanimously chosen commander against the Saxons. And then, not by the clang of trumpets, but by praying, singing hallelujah, and by the cries of the army to God, the enemies were routed, and driven even to the sea."

Nennius therefore mentions this battle only briefly (and not in all versions), which might suggest that the mention, where it occurs, may be a later addition. Nennius concentrates instead on the relations between Germanus and "Vortigern", who are generally in opposition to each other, and to the more general role of Germanus as a source of prophetic statement and a focus of divine interventions. Nennius is the major source (and effectively the only original source) for Vortigern's history. Eventually Germanus himself brings about Vortigerns downfall:

  • "Again Vortigern ignominiously flew from St. Germanus to the kingdom of the Dimetae, where, on the river Towy, he built a castle, which he named Cair Guothergirn. The saint, as usual, followed him there, and with his clergy fasted and prayed to the Lord three days, and as many nights. On the third night, at the third hour, fire fell suddenly from heaven, and totally burned the castle. Vortigern, the daughter of Hengist, his other wives, and all the inhabitants, both men and women, miserably perished: such was the end of this unhappy king, as we find written in the life of St. Germanus."

The narrative is in parts confusing, but seems to introduce the elements of incest which were later incorporated into the Arthurian legends in the form of Mordred. It also contains two different versions of the death of Vortigern, one the spectacular combustion mentioned above and the other an ignominious end in broken hearted misery. Death by fire from the sky appears more than once in Nennius although there is no mention of the actual destruction of a royal hall by lightning which occured around 811/812.

A draco (of Dacian or Sarmatian type) is depicted on a large stone found at Chester, in the North Wall (West) in 1890 and on display in the Grosvenor Museum. A military diploma (dated to 146 AD) found at Chester mentions among the units of the released soldiers the name of cohors I Aelia Dacorum. Therefore, the horseman depicted on the tombstone at Chester could be a Dacian cavalryman, belonging to a vexillatio of that cohort. If the Romans left troops in the area or the sub-Roman Britons adopted the Roman type of standard this could explain how the dragon/serpent symbol passed into Welsh culture.

Arthur

The work was the first source to portray King Arthur, who is described as a dux bellorum ('military leader') or miles ('warrior, soldier') and not as a king.

It names the twelve battles that this Arthur supposedly fought, but unlike the Annales Cambriae, none are assigned actual dates. Arthur is portrayed as an impressive warrior, single-handedly killing 940 foes in the Battle of Badon alone.

The Historia contains a story of the king Vortigern, who allowed the Saxons to settle in the island of Britain in return for the hand of Hengist's daughter. One legend recorded of Vortigern concerns his attempt to build a stronghold near Snowdon, called Dinas Emrys, only to have his building materials disappear each time he tries. His advisers tell him to sprinkle "the blood of a boy born without a father" on the site to lift the curse. Vortigern finds such a youth in Ambrosius, who rebukes the wise men and reveals that the cause of the disturbance is two dragons buried under the ground. The symbolism of the dragons is interesting. A reasonable argument can be made out that the Welsh "dragon" as a military standard may be derived from the "Draco" standard used by the Romans, particularly by their auxiliary cavalry who are known to have been deployed in North wales. The West Saxons also used the dragon symbol: Alfred the Great carried it on his battle standard and King Harold fell under it in 1066 - it can be seen on the Bayeux Tapestry in the scene depicting the death of Harold. To complicate matters further a pair of serpents ("dragons"?) appears as a symbol associated with Segontium (Caernafon) in the Notitia Dignitatum although the heraldry in illuminated manuscript copies of the Notitia is thought to copy or imitate only that illustrated in the lost Codex Spirensis which itself could not have been a Roman document.

The tower story is repeated and embellished by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, though he attributes it to Merlin, saying "Ambrosius" is the sage's alternative name. Excavations in 1910 and 1954–56 at the supposed Dinas Emrys revealed several periods of habitation at the site. The earliest elements date to the Iron Age, perhaps to the 1st or 2nd century. A pool within the enclosure, thought to be an artificial construction, may date to this phase. Geoffrey also includes Aurelius Ambrosius, another figure mentioned in the Historia, as a king in his own right, and also includes other characters such as Vortimer, a son of Vortigern.

Woden

The surviving text of Nennius ends with some details of the life of St Patrick, and then some genealogy which is clearly added later and has most of the Anglo-Saxon kings being descended from the Scandinavian diety Woden (Odin), something that fervent Anglo-Saxonist Charles Kingsley would later promote in Victorian times. In Old English texts, Odin holds a particular place as a euhemerized ancestral figure among royalty, and he is frequently referred to as a founding figure among various other Germanic peoples, such as the Langobards. Forms of his name appear frequently throughout the Germanic record, though narratives regarding Odin are mainly found in Old Norse works recorded in Iceland, primarily around the 13th century. Given this context, it seems likely that the "Woden" references in Nennius were added later.

Nennius on Chester

The times leading up to Merfyn's reign were unsettled for both Gwynedd and neighbouring Powys. To a very rough approximation Gwynedd can be thought of as the descendant state of the pre-roman Deceangli who controlled the important mineral reasources of North Wales, including lead and more importantly copper, which was needed for the manufacture of bronze. Powys is similarly derived from the lands of the Cornovii who lived principally in the modern English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, north Staffordshire, north Herefordshire and eastern parts of the presnt Welsh county of Powys. The Cornovii economy seems to have been based in part on the fertile Dee and Trent valleys and on salt. The Deceangli "capital" in pre-Roman times was most likely on or close to the Great Orme (hence Deganwy), whereas that of the Cornovii was possibly a hill fort on The Wrekin and later moved to Viroconium. Matters are complicated by the existence of the legends concerning the Hen Ogledd which have the rulers of North Wales originating in a semi-Romanised state north of Hadrians Wall (which Nennius omits to mention).

After around 800, both kingdoms were beset by internal dynastic strife, external pressure from Mercia to the east, and bad luck with nature. In 810, there was a bovine plague that killed many cattle (the primary form of wealth at the time) throughout Wales. The next year, the ancient wooden llys (royal hall) at Deganwy was struck by lightning. A destructive war for control of Gwynedd raged between 812 and 816, while in Powys a son of the king was killed by his brother "through treachery". In 818, there was a notable battle at Llanfaes on Anglesey. Although sources do not identify the combatants, the site had been the llys of King Cynan who had recently engaged in a destructive dynastic power struggle with a rival named Hywel, sometimes supposed to be his brother. Hywel was the last King of Gwynedd in the male line of Cunedda Wledig. He would be succeeded by the eldest son of Essylt daughter of Cynan Dindaethwy and Gwriad King of Ynys Manaw who was the Merfyn Frych of Nennius.

Merfyn Frych, also known as Merfyn ap Gwriad ("Merfyn son of Gwriad") and Merfyn Camwri ("Merfyn the Oppressor"), was King of Gwynedd from around 825 to 844. His father's origins are obscure, so is the basis of his claim to the throne. Royal pedigrees appear to find some difficulty in establishing a clear line of descent to him via his father Gwriad ap Elidyr, who may have been a Manx chieftan. Nennius is silent as to the ancestry of Merfyn Frych, even though his succession marked a significant dynastic change. It is conceivable that this dynastic change was a reason why "Nennius" was originally compiled, with possible reasons ranging from the creation of an "end of an age" history, or an unfavorable comparison with Vortigern. The son of Merfyn was Rhodri the Great (c820-878) who created for the first time a loose union of at least three major Welsh provinces, and though dissolved at Rhodri's death, when his kingdom fragmented among his sons, this temporary association gave impetus to an aspiration which coloured the outlook of successive generations of Rhodri's descendants as rulers of Deheubarth or Gwynedd down to the loss of Welsh independence in the time of Edward I.

Britain in 878 - showing the area of Danish occupation. Although "Nennius" was written prior to this date it was probably being used as a history text at the time when a fresh wave of Scandinavians were invading.

Coenwulf of Mercia (reigned 796-821) took advantage of the situation in 817, occupying Rhufoniog (Denbigh) and laying waste to farms and sellements in the mountains of Snowdonia. Coastal Wales along the [River Dee] Estuary may have remained under Mercia’s control through 821, as Coenwulf is recorded dying at Basingwerk in that year (although the abbey at Basingwerk was only founded in 1132 by Ranulph De Gernon). In 823, Mercia laid waste to Powys and returned to Gwynedd to burn the rebuilt Deganwy to the ground. Gwynedd and Powys then gained a respite when Mercia's attention turned elsewhere and its fortunes waned. King Beornwulf was killed fighting the East Anglians in 826, his successor Ludeca suffered the same fate the following year, and Mercia, including Chester, was conquered and occupied by Ecgberht of Wessex in 829, as commemorated as the supposed first ruler of all England in the much later carvings at Chester Town Hall. Though Mercia managed to throw off Ecgberht's rule in 830, it was thereafter beset by dynastic strife and never regained its former dominance, either in Wales or eastern England, being eventually adsorbed by Wessex.

Nennius cannot have been unaware of all these recent and near contemporaneous events, but fails to make any reference to them, other than to take a general view that the Anglo-Saxons are a bunch of murderous savages who are not to be trusted. Similarly there is no mention of Cygen ap Cadell (808-854) who was later to erect Eliseg's Pillar, in memory of his great-grandfather Elisedd ap Gwylog. Elisedd re-established Powysian independence after the Saxon invasions of 823, and probbaly transferred the Royal Court from Dinas-Bran to Mathrafal. This apparent complete disregard of recent events, many of which involve Gwynedd where Nennius was writing, appears as a complete detatchment from then current politics, but the answer might not be that simple.

Conclusions

Nennius describes his Welsh countrymen positively, as the original and rightful inhabitants of Britain, yet subjected to a series of foreign invasions which they either resisted and, in time, overcame, or in the case of the Romans effectively hybridised with. He wanted this people to be led by a "local" hero who stood up to the untrustworthy Saxons, though there had never been such a figure. He wanted his hero to be a Christian, guided by the church (as opposed to how Vortigern was not guided by Germanus) and devoted to the Virgin Mary, though the Virgin's cult only appeared in the Mediterranean in the mid-seventh century and only spread to England and Wales in the eighth century. And he possibly decided to call this hero "Arthur" because he was already familiar with this name, perhaps from the Welsh poem Y Gododdin, where a warrior is praised "though he was no Arthur". Nennius may well have never intended to produce a history but rather to create a sermon about the beneficial fusion of the church and state.

On the other hand, the text of Nennius first appears (c.830) in the time of a dynastic change and a young Rhodri "the Great" (c 820-878). Rhodri, whose ancestry did not clearly go back to the "Old North", was to do much to (briefly) unite a fragmented Wales as well as facing pressure both from the English and, increasingly, from Vikings. On the English side of the border Mercia had peaked and Wessex (with its dragon standard) was on the rise. It cannot be discounted that the history of "Nennius" was produced out of this political background and that copies of it made over the next fifty years were a historical text used in a Britain which faced a further wave of Scandinavian invasions for which parallels could be drawn with the coming of the Saxons roughly 400 years before.

The no doubt well-known text of Nennius formed the basis for Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c 1136) much of which appears to be derived from Gildas's 6th-century polemic The Ruin of Britain, Bede's 8th-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People and the 9th-century History of the Britons ascribed to Nennius (among other sources). Monmouth's text also seeks to serve a political purpose, and took the legend of Arthur onto another stage from which it would develop into a full-blown medieval romance with various attempts to adapt/adopt it for yet more political purposes along the way.

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