Although the text of Historia Brittonum “The History of the Britons” was attributed in the past to the cleric Nennius, it is now believed to have been written by a Welsh clergyman AD 829×30. This work is a compilation of miscellaneous texts of various origins and purposes, drawing upon materials from oral tradition as well as Latin manuscripts, and from sources in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The early material (§10-18) is a mixture of myth and speculation attempting to provide origin legends for various ethnic groups living in the British Isles in the ninth century. History of the Britons is a rare and fascinating glimpse into the early ninth century, but a text that must be used with caution!
The following text was adapted by Michael Newton from John Allen Giles, trans. The works of Gildas and Nennius. London, J. Bohn, 1841. Personal and place names have been corrected according to the edition in John Koch, ed. The Celtic Heroic Age.
§ 2. Do not hesitate, diligent reader, to winnow my chaff, and lay up the wheat in the storehouse of your memory: for truth does not care who is the speaker, nor in what manner it is spoken, but that the thing be true; and she does not despise the jewel which she has rescued from the mud, but she adds it to her former treasures.
For I yield to those who are greater and more eloquent than myself, who, kindled with generous ardour, have endeavoured by Roman eloquence to smooth the jarring elements of their tongue, if they have left unshaken any pillar of history which I wished to see remain. 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 Merfyn, king of the Britons, and I hope that the prayers of my betters will be offered up for me as reward for my labour. But this is sufficient by way of preface. I shall obediently accomplish the rest to the utmost of my power.
§ 3. Here begins the apology of Nennius, the historiographer of the Britons, a Briton by ethnicity. I, Nennius, disciple of St. Elbotus, have endeavoured to write some extracts which the British nation had cast away through their indifference, because teachers had no knowledge nor gave any information in their books about this island of Britain. But I have got together all that I could find as well from the annals of the Romans as from the chronicles of the sacred fathers, Hieronymus, Eusebius, Isidorus, Prosper, and from the annals of the Scots [i.e., Gaels] and Saxons, and from our ancient traditions. Many teachers and scribes have attempted to write this, but somehow or other have abandoned it from its difficulty, either on account of frequent deaths, or the often recurring calamities of war. I pray that every reader who shall read this book, may pardon me, for having attempted, like a chattering jay, or like some weak witness, to write these things, after they had failed. I yield to him who knows more of these things than I do. […]
§ 7. This is the beginning of the history of the Britons, edited by Mark the anchorite, a holy bishop of that people. The island of Britain derives its name from Brutus, a Roman consul. Taken from the south- west point it inclines a little towards the west, and to its northern extremity measures eight hundred miles, and is in breadth two hundred. It contains thirty three civitates […] It has also a vast many promontories, and innumerable fortresses, built of brick and stone. Its inhabitants consist of four different people: the Scots, the Picts, the Saxons and the ancient Britons.
§ 8. Three major islands belong to it; one, on the south, opposite the Armorican shore, called the Isle of Wight; another between Ireland and Britain [the isle of Man], is called Eubonia [a Latinized Gaelic name] or Manau [in Welsh]; and another directly north, beyond the Picts, named Orkney; and hence it was anciently a proverbial expression, in reference to its kings and rulers, “He reigned over Britain and its three islands.”
§ 9. It is fertilized by several rivers, which cross it in all directions, to the east and west, to the south and north; but there are two pre-eminently distinguished among the rest, the Thames and the Severn, which formerly, like the two arms of Britain, bore the ships employed in the conveyance of riches acquired by commerce. The Britons were once very populous and dominated it from sea to sea.
§ 10. Respecting the period when this island became inhabited subsequently to the Flood, I have seen two distinct traditions. According to the annals of the Roman history, the Britons deduce their origin both from the Greeks and Romans. On the side of the mother, from Lavinia, the daughter of Latinus, king of Italy, and of the race of Silvanus, the son of Inachus, the son of Dardanus; who was the son of Saturn, king of the Greeks, and who, having possessed himself of a part of Asia, built the city of Troy. Dardanus was the father of Troius, who was the father of Priam and Anchises; Anchises was the father of Aeneas, who was the father of Ascanius and Silvius; and this Silvius was the son of Aeneas and Lavinia, the daughter of the king of Italy. From the sons of Aeneas and Lavinia descended Romulus and Remus, who were the sons of the holy queen Rhea, and the founders of Rome. Brutus was consul when he conquered Spain, and reduced that country to a Roman province. He afterwards subdued the island of Britain, whose inhabitants were the descendants of the Romans, from Silvius Posthumus. He was called Posthumus because he was born after the death of Aeneas his father; and his mother Lavinia concealed herself during her pregnancy; he was called Silvius, because he was born in a wood. Hence the Roman kings were called Silvan, and the Britons from Brutus, and rose from the family of Brutus. […]
§ 12. After an interval of at least eight hundred years, the Picts came and occupied the Orkney Islands: from there they laid waste to many regions, and seized those on the north side of Britain, where they still remain, keeping possession of a third part of Britain to this day.
§ 13. Long after this, the Scots [i.e., Gaels] arrived in Ireland from Spain. The first that came was Partholon, with a thousand men and women; these increased to four thousand; but a mortality coming suddenly upon them, they all perished in one week.
The second was Nimeth, the son of Agnoman, who, according to report, after having been at sea a year and a half, and having his ships shattered, arrived at a port in Ireland, and continuing there several years, returned at length with his followers to Spain.
After these came three sons of Miles Hispaniae [“Spanish soldier”] with thirty ships, each of which contained thirty wives; and having remained there during the space of a year, there appeared to them, in the middle of the sea, a tower of glass, the summit of which seemed covered with men, to whom they often spoke, but received no answer. At length they determined to besiege the tower; and after a year’s preparation, advanced towards it, with the whole number of their ships, and all the women, one ship only excepted, which had been wrecked, and in which were thirty men, and as many women; but when all had disembarked on the shore which surrounded the tower, the sea opened and swallowed them up. Ireland, however, was peopled, to the present period, from the family remaining in the vessel which was wrecked. Afterwards, another came from Spain, and possessed themselves of various parts of Britain.
§ 14. Last of all came Dám-hoctor [“Group of eight”] whose descendants remain in Britain to this day. Istoreth, the son of Istorinus, with his followers, held Dál Riata; Builc possessed the island Eubonia [Isle of Man], and other adjacent places. The sons of Liethan obtained the country of the Dimetae [Dyfed], where there is a city called Menavia [later St. David’s], and the province Guïr Gëtgueli [in south Wales], which they ruled until they were expelled from every part of Britain by Cunedda and his sons.
§ 15. According to the most learned Scots [Gaels], at the same time that the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea, in which, as we read in the Book of the Law, and the Egyptians who followed them were drowned, Ireland was uninhabited. There lived at that time among this people, with a numerous family, a Scythian of noble birth, who had been banished from his country and did not go to pursue the Israelites. The Egyptians who were left, seeing the destruction of the great men of their nation, and fearing lest he should possess himself of their territory, took counsel together, and expelled him.
Having been expelled, he wandered forty-two years in Africa, and arrived, with his family, at the altars of the Philistines, by the Lake of Osiers. Then passing between Rusicada and the hilly country of Syria, they travelled by the river Malva through Mauritania as far as the Pillars of Hercules; and crossing the Tyrrhene Sea, landed in Iberia, where they lived for many years, having greatly increased and multiplied. Thence, a thousand and two years after the Egyptians were lost in the Red Sea, they went into Ireland, and the district of Dál Riata. At that period, Brutus, who was the first consul, reigned over the Romans; and the state, which before was governed by regal power, was afterwards ruled, during four hundred and forty-seven years, by consuls, tribunes of the people, and dictators.
The Britons came to Britain in the third age of the world; and in the fourth, the Scots took possession of Ireland. The Britons, unaccustomed to warfare, were constantly attacked by the Scots from the west, and by the Picts from the north, acting in unison. A long time after this, the Romans acquired a global empire. […]
§ 19. The Romans, having obtained the dominion of the world, sent representatives to the Britons to demand that they surrender hostages and tribute, which they received from all other countries and islands; but the Britons, fierce, disdainful, and haughty, treated the Roman envoy with contempt. […]
§ 31. […] Vortigern then reigned in Britain. In his time, the native inhabitants were in a state of fear because of the assaults of the Scots and Picts, as well as the Romans, and their worries about Ambrosius.
In the meantime, three ships, exiled from Germany, arrived in Britain. They were commanded by the [Saxon] brothers Horsa and Hengist, who were the sons of Guictgils […] Vortigern received them as friends and gave them the island which they call Thanet, but which the Britons call Ruhïm. Gratianus Aequantius at that time reigned in Rome. The Saxons were received by Vortigern, four hundred and forty- seven years after the death of Christ […]
§ 37. Hengist, a cunning and insightful man, realized that he was dealing with an ignorant king and a fickle population incapable of opposing much resistance. He replied to Vortigern, “We are, indeed, few in number; but, if you will give us permission, we will send to our country for an additional number of forces, with whom we will fight for you and your subjects.” Vortigern agreed to this proposal and messengers were sent across the sea. They chose a number of military troops who returned in sixteen ships, bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist. The Saxon chief prepared an feast, to which he invited the king, his officers, and Ceretic, his interpreter, having previously asked his daughter to serve them so profusely with wine and ale that they might soon become intoxicated.
This plan succeeded; and Vortigern, prompted by Satan, and entranced by the beauty of the girl, demanded her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her whatever he should ask. Hengist, consulted with the Oghgul [Anglian] elders who accompanied him, and demanded that in exchange for his daughter he be given the province called Canturguoralen in English, or Ceint [Kent] in British. Guoyrancgon, who was then king of Ceint, did not know about this surrender of land. He experienced much grief from seeing his kingdom thus clandestinely, fraudulently, and imprudently resigned to foreigners. The girl was given to the king, who slept with her, and loved her exceedingly.
§ 38. Hengist said to Vortigern, “I will be to you both a father and an adviser; do not reject my advice, and you shall have no reason to fear being conquered by any man or any nation; for the people of my country are strong, warlike, and robust: if you approve, I will send for my son and his brother, both valiant men. At my request they will fight against the Scots and you can give them the countries in the north, near the wall called Guaul [Hadrian’s Wall].” The reckless sovereign agreed to this, and Octa and Ebissa arrived with forty ships. In these they sailed round the country of the Picts, laid waste to the Orkneys, and took possession of many territories, up to the Pictish boundaries. But Hengist continued, by degrees, sending for ships from his own country, so that some of their original islands were left emptied of people; and whilst his people were increasing in power and number, they came to the province of Kent.
§ 40. But soon after, calling together his wise men to consult what was to be done, they said to him, “Retreat to the remote outskirts of your kingdom; build and fortify a settlement there to defend yourself, for the people you have received are treacherous; they are seeking to subdue you by trickery, and, even during your life, to seize upon all the countries subject to your power, how much more will they attempt, after your death!”
The king, pleased with this advice, departed with his wise men, and travelled through many parts of his territories, in search of a place convenient for the purpose of building a citadel. After traveling far and wide, they finally came to a province called Gwynedd [in Wales]; and they surveyed the mountains of Herëi [Snowdon] and discovered, on the summit of one of them, a location suitable for building a fortress. Upon this, the wise men said to the king, “Build a settlement here: for, in this place, it will ever be secure against the barbarians.” […]
§ 43. Finally Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, fought courageously against Hengist, Horsa, and his people; he expelled them to the isle of Thanet, and forced them to retreat within it three times, and besieged them on the western side.
The Saxons despatched deputies to Germany to request large reinforcements, and an additional number of ships: having obtained these, they fought against the kings and princes of Britain, and sometimes extended their boundaries by victory, and sometimes were conquered and driven back.
§ 62. During that era [530s-40s] Öütïgïrn fought bravely against the Angles; Talhaern Tat-aguen [“Iron- brow Father of Poetic Genius”] was famed for poetry, and Neirin, Taliessin, Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut [“Wheat of Song”], were all famous Brythonic poets.
The great king Maïlcun [later known as “Maelgwn”] reigned among the Britons in the district of Gwenydd, since his great-great-grandfather Cunedag [later known as “Cunedda”], and his sons, had come before from the north, from the country which is called Manau Gododdin [in Scotland], 146 years before Maïlcun reigned and expelled the Scots with much slaughter from those countries and they never returned again to inhabit them.
§ 63. [Kings of Bernicia] Adda, son of Ida, reigned for eight years; Æthelric, son of Adda, reigned for four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned for seven years. Freothwulf reigned for six years. During that time the kingdom of Kent was converted to Christianity by the mission of Gregory.
Hussa reigned [in Bernicia] seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, Rïderch, Guallauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely against this Urien and his sons. There were defeats on both sides. Urien beseiged them for three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut [Lindisfarne]; and while he was on an expedition Morcant had him murdered, out of jealousy, because his military skill was so superior to that of the other kings.
Æthelfrith reigned for twelve years in Bernicia, and twelve more in Deira. He gave the town of Din- Guoïroï to his wife Bebba, and so it is called Bebbanburg [Bamburgh] after her.
Edwin, son of Alla, reigned for seventeen years. He conquered Elmet and expelled its king Certic. Eanfled, his daughter was baptized on the twelfth day after Pentecost with all her followers, both men and women. The following Easter Edwin himself was baptized, along with 12,000 of his subjects. Rün son of Urien was the man who baptized them: he spent forty days baptizing all classes of the Saxons and by his preaching many were converted to Christianity.