Vortigern Studies

What's New I Sitemap I Bibliography I Vortigern I Vortigern Studies l Wansdyke I POLLS I LINKS l Sitemaster I FAQs
about Vortigern Studies l Games I Arthurian Collection I View Guestbook I Sign Guestbook l Webrings

  Vortigern Studies > Vortigern > The Sources > Historia Brittonum

Vortigern Studies Index



The Sources
click here

'Nennius'- Historia Brittonum
( ca AD 829)

Robert Vermaat

The Historia Brittonum is the single most important source for Vortigern. It describes for the first time the full background of the invitation to the Saxons, at least as it was perceived at the time of writing, in the 9th century. As a result of e new interest in British history, the questions as to the how and why of the current English domination led to a new interest in Vortigern at the same time. However, most of what we get to see is purely legendary.

Manuscripts and date

A transcript of the relevant chapters can be found at this site.

It has become clear that all MSS of the Historia Brittonum are different enough from each other, as well as from the later Welsh Bruts and the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, to be seen as very late but original version of an independent Welsh tradition. Unfortunately, all of these MSS might have been cross-referenced in later medieval copying, to an extent which has to make us very careful in determining their true value. What we may conclude is that the Historia Brittonum may reflect an authentic (but very insecure) Welsh traditional history, which might even possibly date back to the 5th century as far as Vortigern is concerned.

Mommsen chose 11 manuscripts as worthy of prime consideration, in 5 groups:

  • Group Z: Chartres MS 98 (c. 900).
  • Group M: Vatican Reg. 1964 (11th century), N (12th century).
  • Group H: British Library Harleian MS 3859 (c. 1100), K (12th century).
  • Group C: Cambridge Corpus Christi 139 (1164), D, L, G.
  • Group P: British Library Cotton Caligula A VIII (12th century), Q.

P and Q are abbreviated copies, which ascribe the Historia Brittonum to Gildas. There are also several Irish versions, known as the Lebor Bretnach, which contain 3 main versions in 5 manuscripts.

Harleian 3859h
The MS of the Historia Brittonum mostly used is the MS Harleian 3859h, which is the only(!) MS that contains the whole of the Historia Brittonum in its fullest form (but not the prologue), and one of only two MS that contain C. 57-66. It also contains the by far oldest versions of the Annales Cambriae and the Welsh dynastic genealogies. It must be said here that the texts of the Historia Brittonum can differ widely. Harleian 3859 was written at the end of the 11th century from an earlier prototype and probably edited by an ecclesiastical figure (possibly a monk named Nennius) with a later continuator adding a later appendix. No author is named, however, which is why I usually use ‘Nennius’ as a compromise (below).

The problem with this text is than we can't establish whether this particular MS is the most authentic version, due to the intermingling with later Welsh tradition and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. The form of the Historia Brittonum itself is not early, so we should expect other sources to have influenced the text when it was reproduced. Especially chapters 1-30 differ widely in the known versions of the Historia Brittonum, which is exactly what we would find if we have such influence in mind. It has now become clear that the Welsh Bruts (and other more obscure MSS) form an independent tradition of Welsh history. These MSS often resemble each other the Historia Brittonum and the Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which has in the past been the main reason to discard them as flawed versions of the Historia Brittonum, which as we have seen was not held in high esteem to begin with.

Chartres MS 98
Though the Harleian MS 3859 might date back even to 954, drawn up as the official corpus of family documents of the ruling House of Wales under Hywel Dda or his sons, the Chartres text, possibly the oldest copy, might even date back to 900. Its heading might refer back to Rhun, son of Urien Rheged, which would take at least parts of the original back to the 7th or even 6th century. This heading might refer that Rhun was responsible for some material from The Book of St. Germanus. These excerpts, concerning the history of Germanus & Vortigern, are believed by some to have come from a lost British Life of St. Germanus. Though this could indicate that at least some material could be much older, we should also realise that this fixation upon St Germanus is much younger. It originated in the early 9th century, when the male line of Maelgwn Gwynedd died out, to be replaced by Merfyn Vrych of Manaw (the Isle of Man), who not only brought northern traditions with him, but also brought most of Wales under his sway. In this climate, traditions about another Germanus, patron of the new dynasty and first bishop of Manaw, could circulate easily.

The MSS which do bear the name of ‘Nennius’ are but five. Foremost is the Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 139 (usually abbreviated to MS CCCC 139). This is dated to September 1164 and therefore younger then the MSS discussed above. From it descend the Durham Cathedral Library MS B.2.35 (1166), which was added to an edition attributed to
Gildas, including the Vita Gilde by Caradog of Llancarfan. This MS was in turn copied to form British Library MS Burney 310 (copied in 181).

Another descendant from MS CCCC 139 is Cambridge University Library MS Ff. I. 27(1), which was probably written in the early 13th century, and which was in turn copied to St.John’s College, Oxford, MS 99. MS CCCC 139 however is the archetype of all.

This MS has been added to by many scribes, information which was added for perhaps half a century after 1200. Most of this does not concern us, but there are late but unique references to Germanus and Vortimer, Vortimer’s Grave, Old Carlisle, the origin of Gwrtheyrion, Craig Gwrtheyrn and Germanus and Benlli.

Lebor Bretnach
A last version to consider is the Irish Lebor Bretnach, which has been claimed to be a copy of a lost Latin recension, different from the other MSS discussed above. Whatever the value of that original, Lebor Bretnach remains an invaluable witness to the complete text of the Latin recension which is otherwise only known from the collations of CCCC 139, which rests on a similar copy of that elusive Latin text. Lebor Bretnach is ascribed to the Irish historian Gilla Coemáin (alive 1071-2). Part of this text is preserved in an old Irish codex, the Lebor na hUidre, written c. 1100. The Lebor Bretnach agrees with much of the CCCC 139 including the prologue, giving the author's name as Nemnus or Nemnius.


The editor known as ‘Nennius’ (below) made some additions of his own, possibly between AD 796 and 801. ‘Nennius’ is later known as a writer around 820. The preface, which occurs only in Group C and the Irish versions, contain evidence to date the Historia Brittonum:

I, Ninnius, disciple of Elvodugus, have undertaken to write some extracts..


Ego Ninnius Elvodugi discipulus aliqua excerpta scribere curavi..

All MSS except Group Z and the Irish versions, have written in chapter 16:

Up to the fourth year of King Merfyn.


Usque ad annum quartum Mermini Regis.

This reference to King Mervyn Vrych of Gwynedd might lastly suggest that the text was brought up to date in AD 829 or 830, for it does appear in the Chartres text and not the Harleian version. Bishop Elvodug (Elffodw), of whom Nennius claimed to have been a follower, lived 768 and died 809, so that it is very much possible that Nennius was alive in 830. Ecgfrith, King of Mercia, is the last person mentioned to whom a date can be assigned (796), while most MSS of the Historia Brittonum are derived from a text which mentions Fernmail, ruler of Built and Gwrtheyrnion who traced his pedigree from Vortigern. Fernmail seems to have flourished around 800 as well.

Other recensions indicate later dates:

  • The Cambridge group gives in chapter 4: "The thirtieth year of Anarawd, king of Môn, who now rules the realm of Gwynedd". This would give a date of 907-8.
  • In the Vatican text (M), chapters 4 and 31 mention the fifth year of king Edmund, which would give a date of 943-4.


Who was the real author of the Historia Brittonum? As we have discussed above, the preface that contains the actual name of ‘Nennius’ is only to be found in in later version of the MS. The earliest two, the Harleian 3859h and the Chartres M98, neither have the preface or any reference to the name of the author. It is only MS CCCC 139 and its derivates (MS CCCC 139, fo. 168v), that provides the famous prologue, starting with: Ego Ninnius, Eluodugi disciples (I, Ninnius, disciple of Elffodwg). Two other hands have added Nennio (abl.) and Nemnii (gen.), but Ninnius must be considered the authentic form. But how authentic is it? The rest of the preface consists of later collations from Harleian MSS and a Gildasian recension.

To confuse the matter, other names crop up as well. The prologue also refers to a certain Beulan and his magister, who is referred to elsewhere in CCCC 139, together with a certain Samuel. The scribe calls himself Euben. And the Vatican recension claims as author a certain anchorite called Marcus! Who were these people? Are they the names of later scribes, or is any of these the real author of the Historia Brittonum?

CCCC 139, fo. 169v ends with the remark: Sic inueni ut tibi Samuel (id est infans magistri mei, id est Beulani presbiteri) in ista pagina scripsi. This could be translated with: I have found thus, as I Samuel (the infans of my master Beulan the priest) have written for you in these pages. Would that make Samuel the author? There is a verse in praise of Samuel in fo. 168v of CCCC 139, which makes it unlikely that he is the author, and point rather to a scribe working under the direction of Beulan, and in praise of Samuel. The scribe in question is almost certainly this Euben, whose name almost certainly reflects the Welsh name Owain. An interesting detail is that the Lebor Bretnach, which corresponds with the CCCC 139 in many ways, does not mention these names, but only a certain Cuanu. We should therefore accept Samuel, Beulan etc. as later editors and not as original authors.

The Vatican Reg. 1964 claims to have been edited by Marc the Anchorite, supposedly a Briton and a bishop. Of Marcus we know nothing. However, we do know of an old British bishop called Marcus, who was helping a certain Heiric with a Life of Germanus in Auxerre, commissioned c. 873. Was this bishop, who lived at Soissons at the time, the same bishop which the Vatican Reg. 1964 claims as author of the Historia Brittonum? It is not unlikely. The Marcus who helped Hieric claimed that his information existed in Britain, in written form no less. Did he refer to an earlier edition of the Historia Brittonum, or just to the lost version of the Book of Germanus? Apparently, his treasure of Welsh traditions concerning St Germanus was unknown in France, which made Charles the Bald, who commissioned the new Vita Germani, induce bishop Marcus to take up residence in Auxerre. If Marcus was old c. 873, he could have been involved with the edition of the Chartres date.

Having persued these other names without too much success, we return to the (in)famous prologue itself, with the name of Ninnius. What do we know of him? The Eluodugi (Elfoddw) which he claims to have been the disciple of, was certainly alive at the right time, being a bishop in 768 and responsible for the conformity of the Welsh churches in the dispute over the paschal question. Elfoddw supposedly died in 809. A certain Nemniuus is mentioned in an early 9th-century Welsh MS (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. F.4.32), almost certainly dating to 817. This Nemnuuis was a British ecclesiastic who was challenged by an English scholar about a British alphabet, designing one on the spot. This apparent famous Welsh scholar is almost certainly the Ninnius from the prologue. If all claims about him are correct, the two must be the same person.

But how can we be sure that the prologue was really written by this Ninnius? After all, the attribution could have been a mere guess, made by later editors and pinned on this famous person, as it was done with Gildas, who was also made into the author of the Historia Brittonum. Or, it could have been completely false and a forgery. And lastly, the prologue could really have been written by a Ninnius, but one that lived in the 1oth or 11th century.

Of course, the prologue itself may be a forgery, but there are several Old Welsh names that point to an early origin. How is the "Nennian" authorship affected by all that? Dumville believed that the name of Ninnius was no older than c. 1100, when a new edition was made under the direction of Beulan, by the scribe Euben, in praise of Samuel, and ascribed to Ninnius. However, it is the last part I cannot agree with. If there was no known author, what made the editors so sure that they would ascribe it to this famous Welsh scholar? Surely, there would have been other candidates, such as the more famous Elfoddw? I think it therefore much more acceptable to agree that the name of Ninnius or 'Nennius', was already known to them as author of the text. But to be completely correct, I am using the name of 'Nennius'.

Who was 'Nennius'?
‘Nennius’ must have been a cleric, probably from the borders of south-eastern Wales (Gwent/Buillt/Ercing?), but working in Gwynedd, perhaps even at the court of Merfyn Frych. The sources point to his multilingualism, which means he may have been an interpreter working for the court. Apart from his evident native Welsh and his clerical mastery of Latin, ‘Nennius’ seems to have had a good command of Old English, and maybe even Old Irish. We can imagine him accompanying royal missions abroad, opportunities for laying contacts and getting access to foreign source material, which we indeed find in the composite nature of the Historia Brittonum.

Above all, ‘Nennius’ was a Welshman, and probably the very first to attempt writing a synthetic history of his native race, drawn from all possible sources he could lay his hands on. Though often described (because of the infamous prologue) as ‘dim-witted’ or ‘muddle-headed’, he clearly did not ‘make a heap of all he could find’, but carefully constructed a narrative history, attempting to synchronise all the composite material where he could. That he often failed only proves that his professionalism was not of such a high level as we (and no doubt he) would have liked it to be. He made mistakes with dating schemes, he interchanged people with similar names but from different periods, and he would have needed help with genealogical material.

He may have been lacking in skills, but the glimpse he provides on early British history (no matter how legendary or folkloristic) is the earliest we get, and therefore absolutely unique. ‘Nennius’ is nonetheless our earliest coherent and datable witness to the development of Welsh literature an d historiography, which makes the value of his work to the historians of both oral and written literature immense.


The Historia Brittonum may be briefly analysed as follows:


The sources for the late 4th to the 7th century are considered almost all either made up from legendary material, regnal lists, genealogies, catalogue poems, hagiographical or folkloristic. All these show the signs of mediaeval scholarship: origin-legend, systematic pedigrees, battle-catalogues, hagiography and synchronisation. In short, we can only use them with extreme caution and under constant doubt. Nevertheless, to disregard this material just for that reason alone means taking an easy way out and not doing the text enough justice. I have gone further into such minimalism in my article about discussing history.

Sources for the Historia Brittonum were the chronicles of Prosper of Aquitane and Isidore of Seville, the Eusebius-Jerome Chronicle, the Cursus Paschalis of Victorius of Aquitaine, Gildas’ De excidio et conquestu Brittanniae, at least Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, a legendary account of St. Patrick, a Welsh vernacular poem on Arthur, a (lost) Liber Beati Germani, the Northumbrian regnal list and some English material concerning Hengist and Vortigern.

The Historia Brittonum is therefore a highly composite work, and very divergent views have been and are still held as to its historicity and its value. Though much work has been done on the history of the Historia Brittonum itself, as a source it almost invariably falls short of sources like Gildas and Bede in the minds of modern critics. The chief consideration is as follows:

  1. where the Historia Brittonum and Bede agree the former is thought to derive from Bede (or Gildas);
  2. where the Historia Brittonum and Bede disagree the evidence of the latter is presumed to be correct;
  3. where the Historia Brittonum supplies information not found in Bede’ works this is generally regarded as fiction.

These opinions are held by the authors we owe a large debt for their admirable work on critical editions of the Historia Brittonum, namely Ferdinand Lot and more recently David Dumville. I regret that I cannot accept their views on the value of the Historia Brittonum in any respect, because in my view (and that of others) these are largely based on an overvaluation of Bede and his use of Gildas.

Even though the material for the 5-6th centuries cannot be relied on without great caution, the Historia Brittonum is the only sources which give us anything at all. The material for the 7th century is less shaky, and can be corrected because of the English material. It is the 8-9th centuries that the Historia Brittonum provides the most value, as a source for the general cultural history of the time. Cultural connections with Ireland and England were slowly strengthening by that time, where none had been before the Easter-controversy was resolved in the later 8th century. ‘Nennius’ wrote during the early 9th century, a period of English cultural dominance while the Welsh raided the English. However, Welsh learning at the time led to a cultural superiority that strangely enough matched the political domination by Wessex during the late 9th century. The Historia Brittonum (or rather a Welsh revision) was just then transmitted back to England, where a revival of learning was just under way. The rewriting of that revision led to the Vatican recension, which provided material to English literature, making the circle complete.


  • Bartrum, P.C. (1993): A Welsh Classical Dictionary, People in History and Legend up to about AD 1000, (The National Library of Wales, Cardiff).*
  • Chadwick, Hector Munro (1959): The End of Roman Britain, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 9-20.*
  • Chadwick, Hector Munro (1959): Vortigern, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 21-33.*
  • Chadwick, Hector Munro (1959): The Foundation of the Early British Kingdoms, in: Chadwick, Studies in Early British History, pp. 47-56.*
  • Chadwick, Nora K. et al (1959): Studies in Early British History, (Cambridge).*
  • Dumville, David N. (1972-4): Some aspects of the chronology of the Historia Brittonum, in: Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 25, pp. 439-445.*
  • Dumville, David N. (1976): The Anglian collection of royal genealogies, in: Anglo-Saxon England 5, pp. 2-50.*
  • Dumville, David N. (1975-6): 'Nennius' and the Historia Brittonum, in: Studia Celtica 10/11, pp. 78-95.*
  • Dumville, David N. (1977): Sub-Roman Britain: History and Legend, in: History 112, pp. 173-192.*
  • Dumville, David N. (1977a): Kingship, genealogies and regnal lists, in: Sawyer, P.H.: Early Medieval Kingship, (Leeds), pp. 72-104.*
  • Dumville, David N. (1977b): Celtic-Latin texts in northern England, c.1150-1250, in: Celtica 12, pp. 19-49.*
  • Dumville, David N. (1977-8): The Welsh Latin Annals, in: Studia Celtica 12/13, pp. 461-467.*
  • Dumville, David N. (1986): The historical value of the Historica Brittonum, in: Arthurian Literature 6, pp. 1-26.*
  • Jones, Michael E. (1996): The End of Roman Britain, (Cornell).*
  • Lebor Bretnach, at: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/G100028/index.html.
  • Miller, Molly (1976-7): Shorter Article: starting to write History - Gildas, Bede and 'Nennius', in: The Welsh History Review 8, pp. 456-465.*
  • Nash-Williams, V.E. (1938): Nennius's History of the Britons, (London).
  • Nennius: British History and the Welsh Annals, Latin and trans. John Morris, History from the Sources 8, (Chichester 1980).*
  • Nennius: The Historia Brittonum, trans. John Allan Giles, in: Six Old English Chronicles, of which two are now first translated from the monkish Latin originals (George Bell and Sons, London 1891), full text (English) at: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/nennius-full.html
  • Nennius: The Historia Brittonum: ed. Theodor Mommsen, at: http://bsbdmgh.bsb.lrz-muenchen.de/dmgh_new/.
  • Nennius: The Historia Brittonum: ed. and Latin Keith Matthews (2000), based on Mommsen's version, at: http://www.kmatthews.org.uk/history/hb/historia_brittonum1.html.
  • Tolstoy, Nikolai (1962): Nennius, Chapter Fifty-Six, in: The Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 19, pp. 118-162.*

VortigernStudies is copyright © Robert Vermaat 1999-2010. All rights reserved