Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Chronicles and Scribes

The Round Table Revealed? 
Part IV

The Slaughter of the Saints (2)

Continued from: Slaughter of the Saints (1): The Lost Monastery

“There is no reason to doubt the existence of an important ecclesiastical foundation at Bangor Isycoed, or its practical annihilation by ‘Ethelfrith about the year 615. There is equally little reason to doubt the foundation of the ecclesiastical supremacy of the church of St. Asaph, and the churches named in Domesday must have been in existence long before the compilation of that record. But of them not a vestige that can be recognized remains". [1]

Chronicles and Scribes
We must exercise caution in attempting to reconstruct history from traditional accounts but it must be stressed that we are searching for memories of the monastery at Bangor Is-y-coed. The history of the destruction of the monastery by Æthelfrith's Northumbrian army appears to have been neatly wrapped up in the account of the Battle of Chester. Apart from the mass grave at Heronbridge, which may or may not be connected, no evidence has yet been unearthed for the Dark Age battle of The city of the Legion actually occurring at Chester.

However, an account of such a battle does survive in traditional Welsh accounts. Geoffrey the author of Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) certainly had an affinity for Wales as he identifies himself as "of Monmouth" (Galfridus Monemutensis) in all three of his published Arthurian works. [2] Although he undoubtedly spent most of his working life in Oxford, it is thought he was was most likely born in Monmouth in south east Wales of Norman/Breton stock, and was appointed as Bishop of St. Asaph's in 1151 AD, although it is thought he never visited his see before he died c.1155.

River Monnow at Monmouth

Geoffrey certainly had access to some vernacular sources such as the Gildas' De Excidio Brittaniae, and Historia Brittonum, for example, from which he surely took elements, such as the story of the Dragons of Dinas Emrys, but is generally accused of “inventing” much of the remaining narrative, although in the prologue to the Historia Regum Britanniae, he insists that his work is a translation of a most ancient book in the British tongue presented to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford which he then translated in Latin. Many modern historians doubt the “most ancient book” ever existed, and in his own time he was accused of fabricating his “history”.

Writing before the end of the 12th century, William of Newburgh, claimed:  "it is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur ….. was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons."

Although now considered by many to be little more than a fictional pseudo-history at the time Geoffrey’s opus appeared, regardless of comments by the likes of William of Newburgh, it was met with approval by most and generally considered a master piece of medieval literature, which many claim put King Arthur at the centre stage of British history. Indeed, it was not until the 17th Century that the veracity of the contents of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae as authentic history began to be seriously doubted.

Massacre of the Holy Men
In the History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey tells us that following the massacre of the holy men all the princes of the Britons met at Legecester (Chester) and made Cadwan (Cadfan) their king and under his command pursued Æthelfrith and his Anglian army as far as the Humber. They prepared for battle but came to an agreement that Cadwan should enjoy the part of Britain south of the Humber and Æthelfrith the part beyond it. In the meantime, Æthelfrith banished his own wife and married another. She, being with child, went to live with Cadwan in Gwynedd. She had a son called Edwin who grew up with Cadwan's son Cadwalla (Cadwallon). Needless to say, after a period of exile in Brittany, eventually Cadwalla and Edwin fall out over who will wear the crown of Britain. At first glance Geoffrey's chronology appears to be at fault here if Æthelfrith's pursuit of Edwin in exile at Gwynedd was the motive for the Battle of Chester as proposed by many historians. However, the account of Reginald of Durham, thought to derived from sources independent of Geoffrey, also has Edwin's Welsh exile after the Battle of Chester. [3] The chronology of events surrounding the battle is very significant in determining the motive for the destruction of the monastery and is something we will return to later.

The Brut Tradition
Following Geoffrey's Arthurian story several chronicles were produced which generally followed his account but added 'corrections' and additional material. Wace's Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut followed in c.1155, the first to introduce the Round Table. It is thought that Wace's source for much of his chronicle appears to have been a Breton variant of Geoffrey’s Historia, of anonymous authorship, which condensed and rephrased Geoffrey’s story. The Roman de Brut started, as did Geoffrey, with Brutus the Trojan a descendent of Aeneas and the mythical founder of Britain tracing the lineage of British rulers through the years to the time of Cadwaladr Fendigaid (Cadwaladr the Blessed), the last Dark Age Welsh king of Britain.

Thus, the Brut tradition had begun; a chronicle of British history always following Geoffrey's account and named after its first hero Brutus. Layamon, a cleric from Arley Regis in Worcestershire, England, followed around 1190, producing a translation of Wace into alliterative verse marking the first appearance of Geoffrey's story in English, further developing the theme of the Round Table.

These adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia became extremely popular throughout Western Europe during medieval times. Wace's chronicle, no doubt, was later used by many French writers of Arthurian romance, but the Brut proved especially influential in medieval Wales, where it was largely regarded as an accurate account of the early history of the Britons. Indeed, the Welsh people looked upon Geoffrey's account as preserving the true history of their race, so that Henry VII made some political gain out of his Welsh ancestry and found it to his advantage to claim descent from Brutus, the first king of the Island, and to trace his lineage through the heroes of Geoffrey's book. [4] Henry, Harri Tudor to the Welsh, came from an old-established family from Anglesey which claimed descent from Cadwaladr, Geoffrey's last ancient British king. Henry was known to display the red dragon of Cadwaladr on occasion and took it with the standard of St George on his victory procession through London following the Battle of Bosworth.

St Cadwaladr's Church Llangadwaladr, Ynys Môn

Consequently, the term Brut has come to mean collectively the Welsh redactions of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae. However, Geoffrey’s work was guilty of confusing many traditional names and places in the translation into Latin. Perhaps he deliberately changed them to fit his story, but we will never know for certain if he was plainly incompetent or remarkably creative.

Welsh writers attempted to rectify these ‘mistranslations’ and produced their own, 'corrected', versions of Geoffrey’s story. However, we should not regard the Welsh renderings as straightforward translations; as such they are generally close to their Latin source text although the redactor of the Brut may have been following an early Welsh tradition. The task of the redactor was essentially to prepare a document for publication, which may require editing or revision, and was therefore at liberty to add some brief commentary of his own to correct locally known omissions, or append additional material from traditional lore to the text. For example, several Brut manuscripts include a version of the tale of King Lludd, an important character in Welsh tradition, known as 'Lludd and Llefelys', a tale which Geoffrey omitted from his chronicle but the redactor clearly felt should have been included.

The collective group of Middle Welsh variant versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin chronicle, is known as Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), tracing the time from Brutus to Cadwaladr, and translated into Welsh from the 13th century onwards. About 60 versions of the Brut y Brenhinedd survive, the earliest dating to the mid-thirteenth century. These Middle Welsh variants of the Brut have been classified as: Llanstephan; Peniarth (Ms 44); Dingestow; Peniarth (Ms 21); Cotton Cleopatra (B); and the Brut Tysilio. [5] The Welsh extended Geoffrey's chronicle from the death of Cadwaladr in 682 up to 1332 in Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes), thought to be a translation of an original Latin version, which has not survived.

The Cotton Cleopatra (B) version of the Brut y Brenhinedd, is generally accepted as being compiled in the 15th Century but there is considerable disagreement regarding the date of this manuscript. Although not of great literary value, the Cotton Cleopatra (B) is a composite of various elements not found elsewhere together; the dedicatory chapter for example appears in Welsh for the first time, whereas in earlier versions that include it at all it appears in Latin. The text contains many alterations and additions from Geoffrey's version, as such that it could almost be considered as presenting a new work in much the same vein as the works of Wace and Layamon.

An inferior copy of the Cotton manuscript is found in the Black Book of Basingwerk (Llyfr Du Basing), manuscript NLW MS 7006D, which circulated in North East Wales. This manuscript contains an imperfect version of the Chronicle of the Kings, written about the end of the 14th Century. Although the Cotton version generally provides a better text than the Basingwerk book there are passages where it is clearly at fault and occasionally the Basingwerk version preserves what appears to be the correct rendition, thereby demonstrating that it could not have been copied from the Cotton Cleopatra but both are probably derived from a common source. [6]

The Black Book of Basingwerk version, in addition to the Brut Tysilio, was used for the Welsh historical compilation attributed to the late 15th Century poet Gutun Owain (Gruffudd ap Huw ab Owain). Owain seems to draw heavily from local tradition and departures from the Cotton Cleopatra text are more numerous in his redaction of the Basingwerk variant than in the earlier part of the book and tend to increase as he continues.

Basingwerk Abbey

Originally thought to have been copied at Basingwerk Abbey, near Holywell, (St. Winefride's Well), Flintshire, it is now generally accepted that the Black Book manuscript was copied not at Basingwerk but at Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen, in Denbighshire, as the redactor, Gutun Owain, had spent nearly forty years of his life there and one of the sources he used in compiling this volume was a Valle Crucis manuscript (Peniarth Ms 20). [7] Significantly, The Black Book of Basingwerk circulated in north-east Wales immediately in the vicinity of Bangor Is-y-coed, situated some 25 miles from Basingwerk and only 15 miles from Valle Crucis.

In the Black Book of Basingwerk we find the following reference to the Battle of Chester:

“And after the coming of Ethelfrid had been told to Dunod, he sent to him two hundred of the wisest monks to ask him for his mercy to 'that holy house' and to offer him every good thing that might come to him as a return for leaving them in peace in their monastery to praise God and to serve God, for they had done him no harm. And after their message was told to Ethelfrid he had those saints killed. And he came with his army against the monastery, and against him came Brochwel, and fought with him boldly and fiercely and killed many on all sides. And that fight (?) was called the Battle of Bangor Orchard. [8]

Surely, it is beyond coincidence that a rendition of the Brut y Brenhinedd that circulated in north-east Wales and written a short distance from the site of the massacre of the holy men at Bangor Is-y-coed, where memory of the event would remain strong, refers to the Battle of Chester as Gweith Perllan Vangor, the Battle of Bangor Orchard, indicating that the redactor was aware of a local tradition that this conflict took place at Bangor not Chester.

Continued in Part V: The Battle of Bangor Orchard


1. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire, ii – County of Flint, The Royal Commission on The Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions in Wales and Monmouthshire. 1912
2. The Prophetiae Merlini c.1136 AD, Historia Regum Britanniae c.1139, and Vita Merlini, c.1150. Although later included in the Historia at Book VII The Prophetiae Merlini was originally circulated independently.
3. The Life of St Oswald, thought to have been written by Reginald of Durham c.1165, provides an account of Edwin's exile in Wales immediately following the Battle of Chester “where the monks of whom Bede wrote were slain”. Although Reginald's account follows Geoffrey of Monmouth on several points, there are many differences in the two, suggesting they are both drawing independently on traditions which had much in common and not found in Bede. Cited in Nora Chadwick – The Conversion of Northumbria in Celt and Saxon; Studies in the Early British Border, Cambridge, 1964, pp. 149 – 151.
4. Brut y Brenhinedd, Cotton Cleopatra version - edited and translated by John Jay Parry, the Mediaeval Academy of America, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1937.
5. Brynley F. Roberts, Brut Y Brenhinedd, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1971, pp.xxiv-xxxix.
6. John Jay Parry, Op. Cit.
7. The core of manuscript NLW MS 7006D is a version of Brut y Brenhinedd (Chronicle of the Kings), sometimes referred to as the Brut Gruffydd ab Arthur, (the Chronicle of Geoffrey son of Arthur, an alternative name for Geoffrey of Monmouth), a Welsh translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, prefaced by Ystoria Dared, (The History of the Trojan War), a Welsh version of the Latin Dares Phrygius, the account of Dares a Trojan priest, retelling of the events leading up to the destruction of Troy. Gutun Owain continues Geoffrey's history with another chronicle, Brenhinedd y Saeson (Kings of the English), which provides a record of events in Wales and England up to 1197. The continuation from 1197 to 1332 is based on two versions of Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes). Owain continues the text to 1461 AD, a date probably close to the time when he was writing – The Black Book of Basingwerk (NLW MS 7006D), The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
8. John Jay Parry, Op. Cit.

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