The History of the Britons
(Historia Brittonum), 8th Century
Nennius: The History
of the Britons, full text of chaps 1-66 is also online
Arthurian texts from The History of the Britons
Nennius was an Eighth century historian who is a major source for tales of King
Arthur. [see #56 below]. Unlike the much more careful Bede, Nennius was, as one modern
historian writes "unrestrainedly inventive" [ Gerhard Herm, The Celts,
[London, 1976], p. 275]. Not all of Nennius can be dismissed as he apparently had access
to no-longer available 5th century sources, but neither can he be entirely trusted.
Chapter 31. . . . Vortigern [Guorthigirnus] then reigned in Britain. In his time, the
natives had cause of dread, not only from the inroads of the Scots and Picts, but also
from the Romans, and their apprehensions of Ambrosius.
In the meantime, three vessels, exiled from Germany, arrived in Britain. They were
commanded by Horsa and Hengist, brothers, and sons of Wihtgils. Wihtgils was the son of
Witta; Witta of Wecta; Wecta of Woden; Woden of Frithowald, Frithowald of Frithuwulf;
Frithuwulf of Finn; Finn of Godwulf; Godwulf of Geat, who, as they say, was the son of a
god, not of the omnipotent God and our Lord Jesus Christ (who before the beginning of the
world, was with the Father and the Holy Spirit, co-eternal and of the same substance, and
who, in compassion to human nature, disdained not to assume the form of a servant), but
the offspring of one of their idols, and whom, blinded by some demon, they worshipped
according to the custom of the heathen. Vortigern received them as friends, and delivered
up to them the island which is in their language called Thanet, and, by the Britons, Ruym.
Gratianus Æquantius at that time reigned in Rome. the Saxons were received by Vortigern,
four hundred and forty-seven years after the passion of Christ, and, according to the
tradition of our ancestors, from the period of their first arrival in Britain, to the
first year of the reign of king Edmund, five hundred and forty-two years; and to that in
which we now write, which is the fifth of his reign, five hundred and forty-seven years.
. . . . . . . . . .
Chapter 36. After the Saxons had continued some time in the island of Thanet, Vortigern
promised to supply them with clothing and provision, on condition they would engage to
fight against the enemies of his country. But the barbarians having greatly increased in
number, the Britons became incapable of fulfilling their engagement; and when the Saxons,
according to the promise they had received, claimed a supply of provisions and clothing,
the Britons replied, "Your number is increased; your assistance is now unnecessary;
you may, therefore, return home, for we can no longer support you;" and hereupon they
began to devise means of breaking the peace between them.
Chapter 37. But Hengist, in whom united craft and penetration, perceiving he had to act
with an ignorant king, and a fluctuating people, incapable of opposing much resistance,
replied to Vortigern, "We are, indeed, few in number; but, if you will give us leave,
we will send to our country for an additional number of forces, with whom we will fight
for you and your subjects." Vortigern assenting to this proposal, messengers were
despatched to Scythia, where selecting a number of warlike troops, they returned with
sixteen vessels, bringing with them the beautiful daughter of Hengist. And now the Saxon
chief prepared an entertainment, to which he invited the king, his officers, and Ceretic,
his interpreter, having previously enjoined his daughter to serve them so profusely with
wine and ale, that they might soon become intoxicated. This plan succeeded; and Vortigern,
at the instigation of the devil, and enamoured with the beauty of the damsel, demanded
her, through the medium of his interpreter, of the father, promising to give for her
whatever he should ask. Then Hengist, who had already consulted with the elders who
attended him of the Oghgul race, demanded for his daughter the province, called in
English, Centland, in British, Ceint, (Kent.) This cession was made without the knowledge
of the king, Guoyrancgonus, who then reigned in Kent, and who experienced no
inconsiderable share of grief, from seeing his kingdom thus clandestinely, fraudulently,
and imprudently resigned to foreigners. Thus the maid was delivered up to the king, who
slept with her, and loved her exceedingly.
Chapter 38. Hengist, after this, said to Vortigern, "I will be to you both a father
and an adviser; despise not my counsels, and you shall have no reason to fear being
conquered by any man or any nation whatever; 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 who at my invitation will fight against the Scots, and you can give them the countries
in the north, near the wall called Gual. "The incautious sovereign having assented to
this, Octa and Ebusa arrived with forty ships. In these they sailed round the country of
the Picts, laid waste the Orkneys, and took possession of many regions, even to the
But Hengist continued, by degrees, sending for ships from his own country, so that some
islands whence they came were left without inhabitants; and whilst his people were
increasing in power and number, they came to the above-named province of Kent.
Chapter 39. In the meantime, Vortigern, as if desirous of adding to the evils he had
already occasioned, married his own daughter, by whom he had a son. When this was made
known to St. Germanus, he came, with all the British clergy, to reprove him: and whilst a
numerous assembly of the ecclesiastics and laity were in consultation, the weak king
ordered his daughter to appear before them, and in the presence of all to present her son
to St. Germanus, and declare that he was the father of the child. The immodest woman
obeyed; and St. Germanus, taking the child, said, "I will be a father to you, my son;
nor will I dismiss you till a razor, scissors, and comb, are given to me, and it is
allowed you to give them to your carnal father." The child obeyed St. Germanus, and,
going to his father Vortigern, said to him, "Thou art my father; shave and cut the
hair of my head." The king blushed, and was silent; and, without replying to the
child, arose in great anger, and fled from the presence of St. Germanus, execrated and
condemned by the whole synod.
Chapter 40. But soon after, calling together his twelve wise men, to consult what was to
be done, they said to him, "Retire to the remote boundaries of your kingdom; there
build and fortify a city to defend yourself, for the people you have received are
treacherous; they are seeking to subdue you by stratagem, 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. Having, to no purpose, travelled far and wide, they came at
length to a province called Guenet; and having surveyed the mountains of Heremus, they
discovered, on the summit of one of them, a situation, adapted to the construction of a
citadel. Upon this, the wise men said to the king, "Build here a city; for, in this
place, it will ever be secure against the barbarians." Then the king sent for
artificers, carpenters, stone-masons, and collected all the materials requisite to
building; but the whole of these disappeared in one night, so that nothing remained of
what had been provided for the constructing of the citadel. Materials were, therefore,
from all parts, procured a second and third time, and again vanished as before, leaving
and rendering every effort ineffectual. Vortigern inquired of his wise men the cause of
this opposition to his undertaking, and of so much useless expense of labour? They
replied, "You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle
with his blood the ground on which the citadel is to be built, or you will never
accomplish your purpose."
Chapter 41. In consequence of this reply, the king sent messengers throughout Britain, in
search of a child born without a father. After having inquired in all the provinces, they
came to the field of Ælecti, in the district of Glevesing, where a party of boys were
playing at ball. And two of them quarrelling, one said to the other, "O boy without a
father, no good will ever happen to you." Upon this, the messengers diligently
inquired of the mother and the other boys, whether he had had a father? Which his mother
denied, saying, "In what manner he was conceived I know not, for I have never had
intercourse with any man;" and then she solemnly affirmed that he had no mortal
father. The boy was, therefore, led away, and conducted before Vortigern the king.
Chapter 42. A meeting took place the next day for the purpose of putting him to death.
Then the boy said to the king, "Why have your servants brought me hither?"
"That you may be put to death," replied the king, "and that the ground on
which my citadel is to stand, may be sprinkled with your blood, without which I shall be
unable to build it." "Who," said the boy, "instructed you to do
this?" "My wise men," answered the king. "Order them hither,"
returned the boy; this being complied with, he thus questioned them: "By what means
was it revealed to you that this citadel could not be built, unless the spot were
previously sprinkled with my blood? Speak without disguise, and declare who discovered me
to you;" then turning to the king, "I will soon," said he, "unfold to
you every thing; but I desire to question your wise men, and wish them to disclose to you
what is hidden under this pavement:" they acknowledging their ignorance, "there
is," said he, "a pool; come and dig:" they did so, and found the pool.
"Now," continued he, "tell me what is in it;" but they were ashamed,
and made no reply. "I," said the boy, "can discover it to you: there are
two vases in the pool;" they examined, and found it so: continuing his
questions," What is in the vases?" they were silent: "there is a tent in
them," said the boy; "separate them, and you shall find it so;" this being
done by the king's command, there was found in them a folded tent. The boy, going on with
his questions, asked the wise men what was in it? But they not knowing what to reply,
"There are," said he, "two serpents, one white and the other red; unfold
the tent;" they obeyed, and two sleeping serpents were discovered; "consider
attentively," said the boy, "what they are doing." The serpents began to
struggle with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into
the middle of the tent, and sometimes drove him to the edge of it; and this was repeated
thrice. At length the red one, apparently the weaker of the two, recovering his strength,
expelled the white one from the tent; and the latter being pursued through the pool by the
red one, disappeared. Then the boy, asking the wise men what was signified by this
wonderful omen, and they expressing their ignorance, he said to the king, "I will now
unfold to you the meaning of this mystery. The pool is the emblem of this world, and the
tent that of your kingdom: the two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is your
dragon, but the white serpent is the dragon of the people who occupy several provinces and
districts of Britain, even almost from sea to sea: at length, however, our people shall
rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, whence they originally came; but
do you depart from this place, where you are not permitted to erect a citadel; I, to whom
fate has allotted this mansion, shall remain here; whilst to you it is incumbent to seek
other provinces, where you may build a fortress." "What is your name?"
asked the king: "I am called Ambrose (in British Embresguletic)," returned the
boy; and in answer to the king's question, "What is your origin?" he replied,
"A Roman consul was my father."
Then the king assigned him that city, with all the western provinces of Britain; and
departing with his wise men to the sinistral district, he arrived in the region named
Gueneri, where he built a city which, according to his name, was called Cair Guorthegirn.
Chapter 43. At length Vortimer, the son of Vortigern, valiantly fought against Hengist,
Horsa, and his people; drove them to the isle of Thanet, and thrice enclosed them within
it, and beset them on the western side.
The Saxons now despatched deputies to Germany to solicit 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.
Chapter 44. Four times did Vortimer valorously encounter the enemy; the first has been
mentioned, the second was upon the river Darent, the third at the Ford, in their language
called Epsford, though in ours Set thirgabail, there Horsa fell, and Catigern, the son of
Vortigern; the fourth battle he fought, was near the stone on the shore of the Gallic sea,
where the Saxons being defeated, fled to their ships.
After a short interval Vortimer died; before his decease, anxious for the future
prosperity of his country, he charged his friends to inter his body at the entrance of the
Saxon port, viz. upon the rock where the Saxons first landed; "for though," said
he, "they may inhabit other parts of Britain, yet if you follow my commands, they
will never remain in this island." They imprudently disobeyed this last injunction,
and neglected to bury him where he had appointed.
Chapter 45. After this the barbarians became firmly incorporated, and were assisted by
foreign pagans; for Vortigern was their friend, on account of the daughter of Hengist,
whom he so much loved, that no one durst fight against him--in the meantime they soothed
the imprudent king, and whilst practising every appearance of fondness, were plotting with
his enemies. And let him that reads understand, that the Saxons were victorious, and ruled
Britain, not from their superior prowess, but on account of the great sins of the Britons:
God so permitting it.
For what wise man will resist the wholesome counsel of God? The Almighty is the King of
kings, and the Lord of lords, ruling and judging every one, according to his own pleasure.
After the death of Vortimer, Hengist being strengthened by new accessions, collected
his ships, and calling his leaders together, consulted by what stratagem they might
overcome Vortigern and his army; with insidious intention they sent messengers to the
king, with offers of peace and perpetual friendship; unsuspicious of treachery, the
monarch, after advising with his elders, accepted the proposals.
Chapter 46. Hengist, under pretence of ratifying the treaty, prepared an entertainment, to
which he invited the king, the nobles, and military officers, in number about three
hundred; speciously concealing his wicked intention, he ordered three hundred Saxons to
conceal each a knife under his feet, and to mix with the Britons; "and when,"
said he, "they are sufficiently inebriated, &c. cry out, 'Nimed eure Saxes,' then
let each draw his knife, and kill his man; but spare the king, on account of his marriage
with my daughter, for it is better that he should be ransomed than killed."
The king with his company, appeared at the feast; and mixing with the Saxons, who,
whilst they spoke peace with their tongues, cherished treachery in their hearts, each man
was placed next his enemy.
After they had eaten and drunk, and were much intoxicated, Hengist suddenly
vociferated, "Nimed eure Saxes!" and instantly his adherents drew their knives,
and rushing upon the Britons, each slew him that sat next to him, and there was slain
three hundred of the nobles of Vortigern. The king being a captive, purchased his
redemption, by delivering up the three provinces of East, South, and Middle Sex, besides
other districts at the option of his betrayers.
Chapter 47. St. Germanus admonished Vortigern to turn to the true God, and abstain from
all unlawful intercourse with his daughter; but the unhappy wretch fled for refuge to the
province Guorthegirnaim, so called from his own name, where he concealed himself with his
wives: but St. Germanus followed him with all the British clergy, and upon a rock prayed
for his sins during forty days and forty nights.
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.
Again Vortigern ignominiously flew from St. Germanus to the kingdom of the Dimetæ,
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.
Chapter 48. Others assure us, that being hated by all the people of Britain, for having
received the Saxons, and being publicly charged by St. Germanus and the clergy in the
sight of God, he betook himself to flight; and, that deserted and a wanderer, he sought a
place of refuge, till broken hearted, he made an ignominious end.
Some accounts state, that the earth opened and swallowed him up, on the night his
castle was burned; as no remains were discovered the following morning, either of him, or
of those who were burned with him.
He had three sons: the eldest was Vortimer, who, as we have seen, fought four times
against the Saxons, and put them to flight; the second Categirn, who was slain in the same
battle with Horsa; the third was Pascent, who reigned in the two provinces Builth and
Guorthegirnaim, after the death of his father. These were granted him by Ambrosius, who
was the great king among the kings of Britain. The fourth was Faustus, born of an
incestuous marriage with his daughter, who was brought up and educated by St. Germanus. He
built a large monastery on the banks of the river Renis, called after his name, and which
remains to the present period.
Chapter 49. This is the genealogy of Vortigern, which goes back to Fernvail, who reigned
in the kingdom of Guorthegirnaim, and was the son of Teudor; Teudor was the son of
Pascent; Pascent of Guoidcant; Guoidcant of Moriud; Moriud of Eltat; Eltat of Eldoc; Eldoc
of Paul; Paul of Meuprit; Meuprit of Braciat; Braciat of Pascent; Pascent of Guorthegirn;
Guorthegirn of Guortheneu; Guortheneu of Guitaul; Guitaul of Guitolion; Guitolion of
Gloui. Bonus, Paul, Mauron, Guotelin, were four brothers, who built Gloiuda, a great city
upon the banks of the river Severn, and in British is called Cair Gloui, in Saxon,
Gloucester. Enough has been said of Vortigern.
. . . . . . . . . .
Chapter 56. At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and
increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from
the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings
of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days,
but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle
was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth
battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis.
The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the
forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of
Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and
the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ
and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter
among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was
waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on
the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there
fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except
Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being
defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers
were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings
from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which
Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.
Chapter 73. There is another marvel in the region which is called Buelt. There is a mound
of stones there and one stone placed above the pile with the pawprint of a dog in it. When
Cabal, who was the dog of Arthur the soldier, was hunting the boar Troynt, he impressed
his print in the stone, and afterwards Arthur assembled a stone mound under the stone with
the print of his dog, and it is called the Carn Cabal. And men come and remove the stone
in their hands for the length of a day and a night; and on the next day it is found on top
of its mound.
There is another wonder in the region which is called Ercing. A tomb is located there
next to a spring which is called Licat Amr; and the name of the man who is buried in the
tomb was called thus: Amr. He was the son of Arthur the soldier, and Arthur himself killed
and buried him in that very place. And men come to measure the grave and find it sometimes
six feet in length, sometimes nine, sometimes twelve, sometimes fifteen. At whatever
length you might measure it at one time, a second time you will not find it to have the
same length--and I myself have put this to the test.
Six Old English Chronicles. ed. J. A. Giles. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848.
Giles is the source of the translation of Chapters 31 and 36-49. Translation of
Chapters 56 and 73 is by ACL.
This text was made availabel to the net by Alan Lupack [ALPK@db1.cc.rochester.edu]
for the Camelot Project (referenced in the main Sourcebook index), and where this
text, along with many others referring to Arthurian themes, is available.
This text is part of the Internet
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Paul Halsall April 1996