Nennius and Arthur’s 12 Battles


Sometime in the 9th century (most scholars say c. 830), a monk named Nennius wrote the Historia Brittonum. This History of the Britons goes back to the very beginning with a short course on human genealogy, starting with Adam. It soon reaches the Roman emperors who ruled over Britain, then glides backward again to recount the “finding” of Britain by Brutus the Trojan dux bellorum in 12 great victories over the Saxons. Historians, in trying to pinpoint the sites of these battles, have taken great pains to apply the site-names to places of the country in which they want Arthur to have been located; this has given rise, in part, to the rival claims that punctuate the Matter of Britain

Nennius and Arthur’s 12 Battles”Then it was, that the magnanimous Arthur, with all the kings and military force of Britain, fought against the Saxons. And though there were many more noble than himself, yet he was twelve times chosen their commander, and was as often conqueror. The first battle was in the mouth of the river which is called Glein. The second and third and fourth and fifth on another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region Linnuis. The sixth battle on the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was near the fort Guinnion, where Arthur bore the image of the Holy Virgin, mother of God, upon his shoulders, and through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the holy Mary, put the Saxons to flight, and pursued them whole day with great slaughter. The ninth battle was fought in the city of the Legion. He fought the tenth battle on the shore of the river called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the hill called Agned. The twelfth was a most severe contest, when Arthur penetrated to the hill of Badon. In this engagement, nine hundred and forty fell by his hand alone, no one but the Lord affording him assistance. In all these engagements the Britons were successful.”

Let us examine each site in turn:

The River Glein is thought to be the River Glen, of which Britain has two today–one in Lincolnshire and one in Northumberland.

The Dubglas River and Linnuis are more problematic. Dubglas can be translated as “black water,” a common name in those days and today. A branch of the Medway River, the Kent, was called “Le Black” for hundreds of years and was probably called that in Arthur’s time. Linnuis conceivably provides better clues, as it is an extension of the Roman Lindum, which is now Lincoln. If Lindum can be Lincoln, then Linnius can be Lindsey. Indeed, Geoffrey of Monmouth identifies Arthur as fighting two battles very soon after assuming the kingship: one on the River Douglas and one at Lincoln. The River Bassas is very problematic for historians, although it is thought by some to be near Baschurch in Shropshire. The Celidon Forest is generally believed to be the Caledonian Forest, in what is now Scotland. Geoffrey of Monmouth, of course, places this battle in a wood north of Lincoln; but he can be forgiven for one little slip, no?

The fort Guinnion is thought to be either Caer-Gwent in Gwent or Winchester in Hampshire, the former being an obvious derivation and the latter being based on the Romano-British equivalent of Win-Chester: Caer Guinn.

The City of the Legions is identified by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Caerleon. However, modern research tends to focus on Chester, which was identifed in the Annales Cambriae as Urbs Legionis.

Tribruit can be thought of as Tryfrwyd, a battle mentioned in a tale from the Black Book of Carmarthen that mentions Arthur as well. This battle was pegged as being near the Firth of Forth.

Agned is identified by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Edinburgh. Modern historians agree.

We come at last to Badon, site of Arthur’s greatest victory over the Saxons and historians’ greatest debate over the true location of that victory. Interpretations abound: Badbury Rings, Banbury, Little Solway Hill, Little Solsbury Hill; the list goes on and on. Geoffrey of Monmouth places the battle near Bath. Indeed, Badon may be a derivation of Bath-on.

It should be apparent by now that what is not known about Arthur, his status, his home, and his sympathies far outweighs what is known. What is clear is that everyone wants to claim Arthur as his or her own king. The interpretations of Nennius tend to filter into two camps: a northern campaign and a southern campaign.

The proponents of the northern campaign have some important evidence on their side but have this important question to answer: If the battles were against Saxons, who were in the southern part of the island, then why should the 12 battles be located in Scotland, where only Angles were marauding and only then not in brute force? We know that Badon Hill was a victory over the Saxons. We know that it halted the Saxon advance for a very long time.

The proponents of the southern campaign have geography and history on their side, but several of the battle sites are still purely speculation as to their exact location. Yes, Badon was a victory over Saxons and yes, Saxons were marauding across the southern countryside, but why then do we have Arthur fighting in the Caledonian Forest and at Edinburgh, which are far to the north?

The list of partial possibilities is positively labyrinthine:

Arthur could very well have fought most of his battles in the north and then fought the Saxons at Badon in the south.

Arthur could very well have fought most of his battles in the south and also emerged victorious in a few battles in the north.

Arthur could have roved around the country, fighting where he was needed. This would fit the mold of the dux bellorum, the commander in chief.

The sources could be fragmented, their translations confused, etc.

Given that we are examining events that are already 1,500 years old and manuscripts are at least 1,000 years old, we might tend to embrace the latter.