Explorations in Arthurian History

The Importance of Geography

Part 2: 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.

In Nennius we are treated to glimpses of Ambrosius and Vortigern and the story of the prophet who saw the two fighting dragons. This prophet whom Geoffrey of Monmouth later identified as Merlin is in Nennius simply Ambrose, who says a Roman consul was his father. Also popping up are Vortigern and his son Vortimer, who is said to have fought four great battles against the Saxons in breaking with his father, who was bound by honor and by marriage contract (his wife was Saxon leader Hengist's daughter) to honor his commitment not to attack the Saxons. In Nennius it is made clear for the first time that Vortigern is responsible for bringing the Saxons to the Isle of Thanet and later Kent and other places west. Nennius also mentions the visits of Germanus and the later genealogies of the Saxon kings.

With discussions of fighting against Saxons naturally comes a discussion of Arthur. Nennius calls him "magnanimous" and says he fought as 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.

For the record, this is what Nennius said:

"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 list of partial possibilities is positively labyrinthine:

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

Having ranged all about the country searching for Arthur, let us now zero in on some specific sites. These can be taken in any order or in the order specified:

Click on any of the links above or here to begin the tour

Other relevant links

Arthurian Passages in the Historia Brittonum

Full text of the Historia Brittonum

Nennius's 28 Town-Cities in Roman Britain

Nennius and the Table of European Nations

Arthur's Early Battles

Adventus Saxonum

The Vortigern Homepage

Troubles with Vortigerns

Arthur, Cerdic, and the Formation of Wessex

Back to

Explorations in Arthurian History and Legends

Main Page
The People
The People
The Places
The Places
The Things
The Things
Historical Literature
Literature of the Legends
The Importance of Geography
Books of the Legends
Historical Links
Music of the Legends
Books of the History
Films of the Legends


Other Links
Mailing Lists and Societies
The Authors
Swords and Jewelry

Contact author

2000-2009 David White

The Web This Site