Explorations in Arthurian History

A Literature ReviewPart 3: Nennius and William of Malmesbury

Short mention has been made of Gildas, a sixth-century monk who wrote about the Britain crumbling around him. He is included in Arthurian research because he mentions Badon Hill. But he doesn't mention Arthur. He talks about a character called "the Bear," which can be drawn from the Celtic Art.

One monk who does is Nennius, who lived in the ninth century in Bangor, in North Wales. His Historia Brittonum is significant in that it places Arthur in a time period that can be verified and it gives us details of Arthur's military career. Nennius lists 12 battles won by Arthur, ending with the glorious victory at Mons Badonicus. The locations of these 12 battles are debated by various scholars and is a microcosm of the larger debate over whether Arthur was a northern, western, or southern king. For our purposes, Nennius's battle sites stand for what they are.

Nennius, too, is given to exaggeration, though he may be excused for merely passing on information: He says that at the Battle of Badon Hill, Arthur single-handedly killed 940 men. He also says Arthur went into one of his 12 great battles with the sign of the Virgin on his shield. This reference is probably an attempt to Christianize Arthur, in the vein of the Grail. Indeed, Nennius says of the 12 battles: "For no strength can avail against the will of the Almighty." We have sketchy evidence that Arthur was a person at all, and we have even shakier ground on which to stand and say that Arthur was promoting Christendom. More probably, Nennius had it in his mind to modernize Arthur and draw him out of some of the paganism associated with Welsh tales.

He makes two other mentions of Arthur, both strange:

  • In the first, he talks of a stone having on it a pawprint of Arthur's dog, Cabal. Arthur is said to have built a stone mound with the pawprint-stone on top; this is called the Carn Cabal, and the stone is said to reappear on top of the mound even though it had been taken far away.
  • The second reference to a tomb for a man called Amr, who was said to be Arthur's son. Nennius further says that Arthur "the solider" killed his son and buried him. The mystery comes in here: "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 lengthand I myself have put this to the test."

Click here for the full Nennius text of the Historia Brittonum. Nennius is also helpful in providing his list of the 28 Town-Cities in Roman Britain.

Is Nennius a historian? He certainly wants to be. For the most part, we can conclude he is, so far as history is defined as chronicling events and perceptions. Can we take his writings verbatim as collections of facts? Probably not. He is best taken as a source for investigation, not as a source of history.

One man who wanted to be a source of history was William of Malmesbury, who wrote his History of the Kings of England in the early 12th century, just before the celebrated Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his tome. William says Arthur is "a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but by authentic history." William presents many names and facts but still relies on earlier sources: He quotes Nennius at one point in describing how Arthur himself killed more than 900 men at Badon. William makes one further mention of Arthur. In describing the sepulcher of Walwin, said to be the nephew of Arthur, William says that the tomb of Arthur has not been found, "whence ancient ballads fable that he is still to come."

This, of course, was perpetuating the myth that Arthur would come again, a theme running throughout Welsh tales of famous heroes. But it was the first instance of this concept being applied to Arthur. As such, William of Malmesbury takes us a giant step forward in reaching the idealism that would define the Arthurian legends.

The next step on our historical journey is France. It true, Brut?

Click here to continue.

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