British History, 407-597, by Fabio P. Barbieri

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Appendix 1: Legendary Versions of the Roman Conquest of Britain

Fabio P. Barbieri


Beli son of Manogawn may not unfairly be described as a legendary figure who spends his time being deprived of the throne of Britain by Roman emperors.  In the earliest legend we have - given by Nennius, who else? - he is the British opponent of Julius Caesar; but it is this very same Beli son of Manogawn who is defeated not by Caesar but by Maxen Gwledig in the Dream.  In Nennius, and it would seem in the Triads, Maxen is the last Roman emperor in Britain, as Caesar is the first; the plot of Maxen, however, makes Maxen the conqueror of Britain who expelled Beli, father of all native monarchy, and bestowed his crown on his father-in-law Eudav (Octavius), of course under his own universal overlordship.

As Nennius tells the story, the Romani, once they had acquired the rule of all the world, sent messengers to Britain demanding a highly Celtic sign of submission: tribute (census) and hostages (obsides).  There is no indication here that Nennius had any understanding of Rome as a State, a republic with complex institutions and defined by those institutions rather than by ethnicity: the impression one gets from his admittedly curt expression – Romani autem, dum acciperent dominium totius mundi – is that the Romans are seen as a tribe, an ethnic group, only one endowed with supreme military and political power.  Their sheer pre-eminence makes them almost sacred: when the British reject their demands, Nennius takes a very negative view, calling them tyranni et tumidi, tyrants and over-swollen, pointing out that every other nation has already accepted Roman overlordship.  That is, the whole story is cast (as we would expect) within the categories of Celtic royalty, with no understanding of the existence of different political systems – even the most famous of them all, the Senate and the magistrates of republican Rome.

Within this Celtic world, the monarchy Beli stands for is not the universal monarchy of Rome, the Empire, but the local monarchies of Britain, several steps below in rank and value.  As we saw when discussing the figure of Elen, Beli’s world is one of tiny, separate lordships, with no token of union such as roads; roads are an innovation brought in by Elen, who also had fortresses built in various parts of the island, presumably for the use of the king of the whole country.  Beli is certainly the representative of those pre-Roman "tyrants" known to Gildas; the annihilating defeat inflicted by the "Romans" of Gildas on the "British" traitors after the murder of the rectores finds, as we have seen, its structural parallel in his all-too-easy defeat by Maxen in the fable.  If structural parallels mean parallel in interpretation, then the role of Beli must be seen as parallel to that of the defeated British aristocracy replaced by a new Roman settlement, and therefore to stand for that whole social stratum, the royal caste of people descended from the original alliances of an ancestral hero and a goddess from which every good Celtic royal tribe knew itself to be descended.

According to Nennius, Caesar invaded Britain after he had achieved supreme rule, cum accepisset singulare imperium primus.  This means that the person who took Roman arms to Britain is the same who has completed the process of empowerment of the universal Empire by becoming its first lord. In the end, it seems that the conquest of Britain and the establishment of Caesar as first emperor are part of the same culminating process; the conquest of Britain completes the Roman subjection of the world; and the enthronement of Caesar places the royal capstone on the formation of this new and perfect world state.  This, we can see, is not history, but ideology.  It is probably a part of this sense of progression, of things becoming fulfilled and spaces being filled in, that both Caesar and Beli only appear on the scene after the earliest preliminaries of the confrontation are got out of the way, with unnamed “Romans” sending legates, and unnamed “Britons” treating them with contempt.

The subjection of Beli son of Manogawn to a representative of Roman majesty is therefore a structural, not a historical idea: it has to do with the eternal realities of the world[1].  As Beli was conquered both by Caesar and by Maxen, I did ask myself whether it was possible that, at any stage or in any area, Maxen, rather than Caesar, was remembered as the Roman conqueror of Britain; but I don’t think so.  Maxen’s role as the ender of Roman power not only was too clear, but, according to Dumville, developped too early.  As he crisply summarizes his own findings: "in the dark age of Welsh history between the cataclysm of the later sixth century and the more outward-looking Wales which emerged (after two centuries of near-isolation) in the later eighth, the native learned classes, secular and ecclesiastical, had been hard at work.  A series of basic historical dicta had been developed.  One of these was that Roman Britain had ended with the death of Magnus Maximus in 388, and that from the descendants of this last British emperor all legitimate post-Roman power flowed.  The result was a series of genealogies relating existing royal pedigrees to Maximus by way of marriages to invented daughters of Maximus (as for Powys and Cornwall) or by claiming direct descent from him (as did the kings of Dyfed and, most importantly, the second dynasty of Gwynedd); in the process this gave some of the northern heroes Maximid ancestry."  If Maxen is in one sense a finisher, the last of the Roman lords of Britain, in another sense he is a commencer, the father of all legitimate British kings; and I would say that it is in this capacity that he conquers Beli.  His victory shows that his – Maxen’s – successors in Britain are legitimate, because ultimately Roman.  The defeat of Beli Mawr by the lords of Rome is a structural fact; it is as natural, as innate, for a lord of Rome to defeat Beli Mawr, as it is for Beli Mawr to be defeated by a lord of Rome.  Both sides are simply acting out their own roles in the world, the one as the embodiment of supreme, universally binding and uniting monarchy, the other as the living image of lesser kingship, small and fragmented without an overarching level of royal power.

But if Beli son of Manogawn was the representative of the class of under-kings and teyrnedd, it must follow that his legend would lose or change its meaning as the distinction between over- and under-king became blurred in later mediaeval Wales.  In fact, that is exactly what we see happening: a loss of focus, and the invention of a new character.  Nennius saw Belinus as Caesar's enemy, representative of the kind of kings present in Britain at the time; by the time, however, of our next layer of evidence, not only in the classically inspired material of Geoffrey of Monmouth, but even in bardic and triadic legend, Beli's place as enemy of Caesar is taken by his "son" Casswallawn.

However much of actual historical knowledge may lie behind the creation of this character, we must notice that Cassivellaunus was known to Bede – who was known to Nennius; and yet Nennius, in spite of Bede’s clear statement, does not even mention him.  It is, therefore, not only due to a progress in historical knowledge, that Casswallawn takes centre stage.  Nothing would have been easier than to identify the two characters, and call the synthetic figure something like Belinus Cassiuellaunus, as the same learned classes resolved another historical difficulty by inventing a double-named Myrddin Emrys.  But they did not: when the revision took place, Casswallawn was made Beli’s son.  If the ideological structure behind the legend had still been clear, then the status of this new character would not have been; and in fact, as we will see, there are violent alterations in the meaning of his rank within Geoffrey’s narration – aided, but perhaps not entirely explained, by the fact that Geoffrey demonstrably was in debt to two separate and incompatible sources[2].

I deliberately said “was in debt to” and not “used”, because it is not clear that the two versions were joined together by Geoffrey himself, and not by his source.  As we have seen, Geoffrey spoke no Welsh.  Rooted in the university learning of the twelfth century, with its classical and Arabic sources, he approached actual Welsh tradition in the romantic intellectual spirit of a man of books (it is no coincidence that he was, for much of his career, based at Oxford!).  Yet one of the devices that the unifier of the two accounts seems to have used is the traditional Welsh device of the triad: he devised a sequence of three successive landings of Caesar in Britain, of which only one was known to Nennius.  Nennius makes absolutely no use of the accounts used by Geoffrey for the battles of the first and third invasion, but tells a very similar story of the second, in which the British prevent Caesar from even touching land and destroy his fleet with sharpened stakes below the waterline.  There can be little doubt that Nennius and Geoffrey shared for that account, and for that alone, a common source.

The battles of the first and third invasion, again, show evidence of different origins.  In Nennius, Belinus has an otherwise unexplained army commander by the name of Dorobellus.  This is surely a Nennian misunderstanding.  Nennius says that Caesar fought apud Dolobellum.  Apud is a preposition of place, or, less frequently, of time, “at, near to”, which can never have meant with; Caesar, the phrase says, fought at Dolobellum, not with Dolobellum.  Nennius, however, goes on to add, qui erat proconsul regi Britannico, who was proconsul to the British king; which is grammatically absurd: Caesar fought a battle at Dolobellus, who was a proconsul?  In Geoffrey, on the other hand, Caesar’s first invasion sees Cassivellaunus stop at a town called Dorobellum and consults with his nephews Androgeus and Tenvantius - and with his army commander, Belinus.  The coincidence in names cannot possibly be casual, and Dorobellum is found nowhere else in Geoffrey.

Now, in Geoffrey’s third invasion, Cassivellaunus and Caesar have a deadly battle at Durobernia from which Caesar emerges victorious thanks to the support of the British king Androgeus.  Durobernia is clearly the Roman Durovernum, Canterbury.  Some Welshmen knew that until quite late: the Welsh-language Jesus manuscript of Geoffrey says Caer Gueint, which is surely the Nennian Caer Ceint – Canterbury.  Clearly, Dorobellum and Dolobellus must be derivations or misunderstandings from this place-name.

What this unclear tangle of places, people and battle suggests is the coincidence of a definite person and of a place of battle with Caesar.  Both Nennius and Geoffrey have separate and incompatible mentions of an army commander, Dorobellus or Belinus, in their description of Caesar’s first invasion and its repulse; which argues that such a character must have existed, though the unhappy double chance of Nennius misunderstanding the name of the place and Geoffrey wanting to identify him with Belinus means that we may never know his name or meaning.  That the place is Canterbury is undeniable, even though Nennius has misunderstood name and place – the only settings known to him are London and the Thames mouth.

There must be a strong presumption that the idea of Kent as the field of war underlay this group of notices; but I have the gravest suspicions of their relationship with historical reality.  While Julius Caesar did in fact invade Britain through Kent (as, according to majority opinion, did Claudius[3]), Durovernum was not part of his account, and may not even have existed in his time.  Bede, through whom actual features of Roman history reached Wales – to judge from Nennius’ account, in which recognizably Bedan elements are joined with pure legend - did not mention it either.  We have a series of three successive invasions (Geoffrey, who repeats this pattern, has them occurring at three-year intervals) of which the first is marked by the great battle apud Dorobellum, the second by a battle at London, and the third results in complete Roman victory and British subjection.  None of this is historical, and it follows that there is no reason to regard its setting as historical.  The fact that it shares its Kentish setting with the actual historical invasions of Caesar and Claudius does not seem more than a lucky coincidence, based on the obvious fact that Kent is the closest British region to the continent.

The fact that the name Durobernia had passed through many hands, and been thoroughly misunderstood, by the time it reached Nennius, shows that this is an ancient story.  It does not agree with another story, in which the same name-place receives the form Dolobellum.  It seems natural to assume that the story with the more corrupt place-name – Dolobellum as against Durobernia – is later (or at least, further along the scale of mythologization), and in fact there are features about the scene in Dolobellum that make us think of a Dark Age rather than Gildasian origin.  Apart from Belinus and from his nephews Tenvantius and Androgeus, Cassivellaunus is attended at the battle by three kings, Cridous of Albany (that is of the North, probably Strathclyde), Guethaet of Gwynedd and Brittahel of Demetia. Their names are recognizably Welsh (I mean, rather than Latin or Old Celtic), and their kingdoms represent a rough division of the surviving British lands in the seventh, eighth or ninth centuries, before the fall of Strathclyde, with Dyved standing for all South Wales, and Gwynedd for all North Wales.  This will no doubt have served the interests of definite dynasties, but the point is that the Britain it thinks of is already, and long since, that of its poor mountain survivals in the West.  The Dolobellum version, therefore, took shape some time between the onset of the full-fledged Welsh Dark Age (after the fall of Cadwallon, say 650) and Geoffrey’s own time.  The fact that Cornwall is not mentioned, while Strathclyde is, suggests a narrower period: that between the conquest of Cornwall by the kings of Wessex (in the 800s) and the end of British Strathclyde (in the 900s).

While Geoffrey’s account of the first invasion uses Dolobellum, that of the third uses Durobernia.  At the same time, Geoffrey’s account of Cassivellaunus’ family relationships suddenly goes astray.  Earlier he had described Cassivellaunus and Androgeus as uncle and nephew; now he speaks of them as though they were equal in age and the nephew of the one could be the equal of the nephew of the other. In the second invasion, Cassivellaunus receives sterling support from his surviving brother Nennius (Nyniaw; Lud is already dead), who dies heroically on the shores of his kingdom, single-handedly destroying the Roman hordes after a lucky blow delivered into his hands Caesar’s magic sword Yellow Death, that could rout a whole army[4].

But after both his brothers are dead, the two greatest figures in Cassivellaunus’ kingdom are his nephews Tenvantius and Androgeus.  Androgeus is the son of Cassiuellaunus’ elder brother Lud; which spells trouble.  And punctually, at the unprecedentedly colossal banquet prepared by Cassiuellaunus to celebrate his second victory over Caesar, the nephews of Androgeus and of the King quarrel; Androgeus’ nephew kills Cassiuellaunus’; the King demands the guilty man for his justice; Androgeus tells him to get stuffed, he isn’t going to have his man tried at another king’s court.  The story seems to have forgotten that Androgeus is Cassiuellaunus’ own nephew, transferring the quarrel at a younger generation of nephews and placing, by implication, both Androgeus and Cassiuellaunus in a senior position.  This oddity is compounded by the fact that Androgeus acts as if he thought that his court of justice and that of the king of all Britain’s were equal in rank!  For all we know if we came in at this point in the story, the two contending parties might be brothers or cousins instead of uncle and nephew.

This suggests that this confusing and perhaps confused account of Cassivellaunus’ family links might come from a different source.  Interestingly, this source was in touch enough with ancient realities to use the name of Canterbury in something like its right form and with a clear understanding of its geographical position – an understanding denied to Nennius and possibly to the Dorobellum source. And each of the three invasions has a climactic battle that seems to have come from a different source.  The story of Nennius brother of Cassivellaunus and Yellow Death seems to come from the Dorobellum source; the battle of the shores of the Thames, during the second invasion, seems to either come from Nennius’ Historia Brittonum or to share a common source, since Nennius is familiar with its events but says very little about the first and third invasion – especially the latter – and almost nothing that is compatible with Geoffrey.  From what we have seen of Nennius’ methods and interests, the fact that he only dedicates a single, not very descriptive sentence, to the third invasion, suggests that there was (as we would expect) a standard and famous account of this decisive event; probably the Durobernia source.

It is perfectly clear that, if we have to separate the invasions between different sources, the third and final one belongs to the Durobernia account and no other.  Androgeus thinks that Cassivellaunus outraged him; he promptly goes over to Caesar, sending what Caesar had asked nine years before – hostages.  Game, set and match for Caesar. This is actually not unlike what happened in reality between Cassivellaunus and the exile Mandubracius, who fled to Caesar; and even in subsequent ages, it was clear to all thinking Welshmen that the disastrous consequences of the lack of a recognized superior authority among Celtic kings were a matter of history and no joke.

We have no reason to believe that the original Durobernia account saw Cassivellaunus and Androgeus as uncle and nephew; they are treated as equals, and, underlining their equality, it is their nephews who quarrel.  Androgeus feels oppressed when the supposed king of Britain tries to impose his authority over him; and it seems clear that this has to do with the absence of an overriding authority in the world of Beli, incarnation of the most basic form of royal authority.  It is Caesar who eventually settles the row between them by taking Androgeus to Rome: that is, Androgeus does not accept Cassivellaunus’ jurisdiction above his own, but accepts Caesar’s.  In spite of the general anti-Roman spin of the story, the fact that Caesar wins because of divisions among the British may be read as symptomatic of the inner problems of the level of monarchy embodied by Belinus, one with no real rank between kings and where each is on the same level as the other and each can therefore both threaten and be threatened by the other, with no recourse to any superior authority.  A fair peace can only be achieved by the intervention of an innately superior authority, who satisfies the claims of both: the fact that he honourably removes Androgeus to Rome means, among other things, that he leaves Cassivellaunus as unchallenged king of Britain.  This is actually quite close to what Maxen does when he makes Eudaf king of all Britain upon marrying his daughter: that is, once the Emperor of Rome has conquered Britain, Britain has not only a supreme Roman overlord, but also a native high king whom Rome recognizes.

By contrast, the Dorobellum version seems to treat Cassivellaunus as a perfectly regular king of Britain, entitled to rule over its princes, and there is no hint of a challenge to his legitimacy, nor any need of a superior one to legitimate it in turn.  Now if Cassivellaunus has, as I believe, replaced Beli(nus) in this account, and if Beli is the divine representative of the under-kings, then the Durobernia account seems much closer to the spirit of the story, showing graphically the inevitable submission of a naturally inferior group of monarchies to a naturally superior power, not even by means of strength, but because of the unity of the one and the division of the other.

But it is in the Dorobellum version, that we find evidence of revision, and perhaps the origin of the mysterious army commander.  In his battle at Dorobellum, Cassivellaunus is accompanied by “Belinus, the commander-in-chief of his army, with the help of whose planning and advice the whole kingdom was governed”.  It is all too obvious that Geoffrey or his source want to explain away a mention of Belinus as lord of Britain fighting Caesar at Dorobellum by making him a sort of prime minister, concerned with the governance of the country, but not a sovereign[5].  This conception assumes the existence of an all-island monarchy, which a prime minister would serve; itself a questionable assumption in the world of Beli.  Geoffrey named Cassivellaunus’ father Heli, but every other source tells us that Casswallawn was the son of Beli Mawr.  Indeed, Heli is not even a Welsh name: Geoffrey, or his source, found it in the Bible.

Geoffrey, of course, was in something of a chronological bind as regards this character.  His Belinus was the brother of one Brennius, and Brennius, in turn, was the famous Celtic chieftain who sacked Rome in 390 BC – the last time when the City fell to any enemy until Alaric in 410 AD.  Geoffrey’s chronology dated this to 300 years before Cassivellaunus, who fought Caesar in the first century BC.

But why did Geoffrey not just create a Belinus I and II?  It would be the most natural solution, frequently adopted by historians faced with similar difficulties.  That he resorted to the desperate means of importing a Jewish name with no Welsh parallel (until the age of Methodist chapels) means that he had a stronger reason to deny that Belinus was the father of Cassivellaunus.  The notice that there was a character called Belinus who fought Caesar at Dorobellum and “with the help of whose planning and advice the whole kingdom was governed” fits this difficulty like a glove.  It strongly suggests the existence of an alternative account in which Belinus was Caesar’s enemy, and “governed the whole kingdom by his advice [that is, counsel, thought] and planning”, not, I suggest, as a prime minister, but as a well-advised king.  If Belinus was the father of Cassivellaunus, then he could not be ruling the country at the same time!

In Brittany, where the distinction between over- and under-king survived till quite late, the identity of Beli as the ancestor of the lower order of British kings took priority over any credible chronological scheme, so that the genealogy of St. Gurthiern placed him after the Roman emperors and the king of Britain, as the brother of Kenan of Brittany, to signify the inferiority of Breton lordship – on a level with the Beli king of teyrn kingship – compared with all-British kingship, and, even higher, Roman empire.

Elsewhere, however, the invention of Casswallawn, flanked by his two brothers Lludd and Nyniaw, has left no space for Beli at all.  The presence of Lludd – that is Nuada, Nodons, the god of lower royalty – as the elder brother of Casswallawn, suggests how the rewriting was carried out: maintaining Beli in something like his original foundational role, the one name that must have been structurally associated with him, that of the mythical archetype of all kings, was changed from his father to his son.  There are precedents in Celtic culture for this sort of alternation between a divine father and a semidivine or heroic son[6].  The necessary other son, Casswallawn, was then attached to Lludd as a younger brother, and a third brother, Nyniaw, was attached to the others to form the inevitable Welsh triad.

Lludd himself, I think, had an original legend, largely to do with what we find ascribed to him in the late but important prose story Lludd and Lleverys (see Appendix VI, below), which described analytically the fundamentals of royalty – any royalty, high or low – and that involved the supernatural support of the supreme god, Lug, for Lludd as first king.  This story remained attached to Lludd as he was placed after Beli; therefore, he had to be placed chronologically before Casswallawn, since his stage of the evolution of royalty preceded that attached, first to Beli, then to Casswallawn.

We find Casswallawn representing the lower royalty of Britain as opposed to that of Caesar in the legend of Caesar; but we are told how he won that royalty in the Mabinogi story of Bran and Branwen, in which he takes the crown of Britain from Brân while Brân is away conquering Ireland.  There are enormous differences in detail between the Brân of the Mabinogi and the Brennius of Geoffrey, but one point in common: Brân/Brennius is triumphant and wins empire when outside of Britain, and is often a wanderer across the ocean; but he loses and/or is defeated inside Britain.  And when it is not by Belinus (Geoffrey), it is by Casswallawn (Mabinogi). Brennius and Brân are givers of magnificent banquets and general largesse; it is by his banquets and generosity that Brennius binds the people of the Allobrogi to himself, and the penultimate episode of the story of Brân’s wars in Ireland is the unsurpassed, indeed insuperable banquet that he offered to the most loyal of his followers (including the ever-living bard Taliesin), a banquet that lasted eighty years and was accompanied by the glorious music of the birds of Rhiannon.  As we have seen time and again, banquets are a feature of the royal function, which places Brennius and Brân decidedly within the area of royalty.

What does this mean?  Starting from the fact that Beli/Casswallawn is evidently inferior to the universal monarch Caesar but superior to Brân, it is possible to read this as a mythological version of a hierarchy of princes, expressing in typical Celtic fashion a legal order of rank by means of stories of prehistoric conquest in which the higher nature conquers the lower.  First in the narrative sequence, and lowest on the rung, there is Brân: a kind of prince who succeeds abroad, outside the broadest circle of the nation - Britain, in the legends as we have them - but who, within the circle of the nation itself, has the status of a defeated person (not of a dead person; even when Brân dies, it is not Casswallawn who kills him – rather, Casswallawn cuts off any possibility that he or his heirs might recover lordship over the home island).  His defeat subjects him to the power of the next rank, namely Beli (part of whose mythology was later taken over by Casswallawn).

Beli, we have seen, stands for a kind of purely local, isolated, scattered social existence, without the bonds brought in by Elen when she builds her many roads to unify Britain. Above Beli, mythological representative of the teyrnedd or tyranni, the kinglets in their big houses, stands the family of the kings of all Britain, Eudav and his children, who gain power not by their own strength, but by their alliance with the highest king of the world, the one true emperor.  At this point (and at this point alone) it is possible to feel an echo of a non-Celtic conception, the early mediaeval view of the king of a single nation as a local reflection of the status of the Emperor, an "Emperor in his own country"; with the Emperor being the last and highest term of all progressions of majesty.

A number of issues are answered by this theory.  The name Bran is not very common anywhere in the Celtic world, but wherever it turns up (except perhaps for Fionn mac Cumhail's hunting dog) it can be seen as reflecting a role either of wanderer, or of outcast, or of dispossessed.  Morfrân son of Tegid is deprived of the status of mightiest sage by Gwion Bach.  Bran son of Febal is a wanderer on the oceans outside Ireland, who meets with disaster, turning to dust, when he returns to the home soil; and though the Irish Children of Lir, as unfortunate as the Welsh Children of Llyr, include no Bran or Branwen, it is their peculiar fate to be driven away from Ireland till the day of their death.  Geoffrey's Brian is the nephew of the exiled Cadwallo, whose magician enemy Pellitus (whose name probably echoes Beli) has the power to keep Cadwallo out of the island altogether; in this case, it is Cadwallo rather than Brian who is the dispossessed exile, but Brian shares his destiny, opposes his enemy, and vanishes from the scene once Cadwallo victoriously returns to butcher the English[7].  Geoffrey's Brennius is continuously triumphant outside Britain, twice making himself a prospective patriarch by marrying a princess and thus, according to the rules of Celtic legend, founding kingdoms.  But his brother and lord Belinus is capable of invalidating the first of his marriages, showing his superiority in power and law; and his second marriage apparently produces no children.

Geoffrey did not follow the story of the Mabinogi, in which “Casswallawn” rebels against Brân while the latter is conquering Ireland; almost certainly, he did not know it - it is one of those stories that enter the written tradition in Welsh and not in Latin.  His version assigned to them a variant of the Contending Brothers legend we have met in the chapter on Hengist and Horsa.  Nevertheless, the issue could not possibly be clearer, or closer.  Brennius thinks that his brother, who is High King of Britain, has given him the worse half of the island; he rebels; he loses – as he always must, it seems, while fighting his brother on British soil – and is driven out, only to contract two successive royal marriages, the second of which makes him lord of a large part of Gaul.  When he comes back for a showdown, his own mother spells the issue out to him: “What else did Belinus do to you, apart from promoting you from your position as a petty princeling to that of a mighty king?  Add to this the fact that the quarrel which arose between the two of you was started by you yourself, not by him…”.  Not only is Belinus superior to Brennius, but his influence on Brennius’ life is entirely positive, and it is only Brennius’ own rebellious jealousy, stoked up by wicked men, that prevents peace.  (We remember that one of the names of the Irish Nuada is Elcmar, ”the jealous”.)  When the two brothers eventually make peace, they are together strong enough to sack Rome itself[8]; but it is through Belinus that the succession of British kings must pass; Brennius dies abroad and, as far as we know, has no descendants.

Brân son of Llyr, too, has no children; he has to adopt his own nephew Gwern as an heir – and Gwern dies in the final battle against the Irish.  And this apparent sterility of Brennius and Brân is in my view connected with their peculiar connection with death.  Scholars have spoken glibly of Otherworld Banquets in connection with Brân; but if we place the core of the character, as I do, not in notions of death and/or immortality, but in a cycle of royal legends whose core is royal power, then we begin to see that his banquet is very peculiar indeed.  Kings offer banquets to their followers; but Brân only enters this proper stage of royalty when he is dead.  It is when he is dead and beheaded that he can feast his men as nobody has been feasted before or since; and it is also when he is dead that he can perform the royal function of defending his island kingdom, by having his head buried in London.  And this goes with another strange contradiction: the lowest grade of royalty is the tigernos, the man in the Big House – but Brân has no house and never had.  When he comes to claim rule over Ireland, the Irish build him the first hall he has ever entered, as homage to his overlordship.  Even so, this hall and the royalty it entails, are in fact destined to fail.  The sacks of flour carried into the hall to supply a great banquet – be it noted that, unlike his later banquet in Gwales, this one fails; as does his royalty – carry in fact the burden of revolt against the supposed lord of the hall, armed warriors; and even though Brân’s counsellor Evnissien murders them all, there is battle within the hall anyway, caused by Evnissien himself when he murders the boy Gwern, who was the heir both of Brân himself and of his enemy Matholwch of Ireland.  No royalty will pass through a living Brân; but the dead and beheaded Brân not only feasts his retinue, but does so in a magical palace (for it is when one of his followers opens a window that the whole experience comes to an end), which he never had while alive.

I believe that, Brennius/Brân, far from being identifiable exclusively with the dead, can be shown to be the archetype of chieftains who were very much alive.  It can be no coincidence that the two known historical Gaulish leaders called Brennius were the heads of wandering bands - and what is more, wandering bands which did not manage to conquer a territory for themselves.  The Italian Brennius made havoc around Latium, but his adventures resulted in no lasting settlement (and recent archaeology puts into doubt the picture of utter devastation that tradition gives of the Gallic sack of Rome); the Brennius who, a century later, looted continental Greece and desecrated Delphi, died during the retreat.  If either of them had actually conquered a kingdom, I rather suspect that he would never have become known to us by a name that seems to designate a landless prince; and conversely, a leader who fails to conquer land in the outside, non-Celtic world, may not unfairly be seen as a failed king, a king who never was – whose kingship is dead.

In short, while Beli and Nudd/Nuada may represent a maimed or inferior form of royalty, Brân represents a failed form; he is the face of everything in the course of history that falls, that loses, that dies, and whose fall, and defeat, and death, are a necessary part of the evolution of the world.  A dead Brân will be the strength and defence of succeeding kings.  He even has his own magical hall on the island of Gwales, near Pembroke, where he holds his great feast for his retainers as a true king should.  After all, if is through the death of Brân that the island is defended, it is no less so through the death of many nameless warriors down the ages; if it is through the death of Brân and the end of his line – the cessation of his dynasty’s fertility – that many other lines and dynasties can continue and be fertile, that is no less than history, with its record of extinct dynasties and dead warriors who never had the chance to have a heir.

The fall of Brân, followed by the royal rule of Beli and by his conquest by Caesar, represen three levels or stages of monarchy; a triad of kingships, in fact, following upon the originating kingship of Lludd, which sums up everything that kingship is to society at large in the Celtic mind.  And the reason why Lludd is kept separate from Beli, even though they represent the same level of kingship, is that Beli, unlike Lludd, is qualified by the two other kingships that on either side of his in the mythological triptych: that of Brân, the beheaded figure of the failed and dead king, and that of Caesar, the universal king, king over other kings.

Notes


[1] Beli’s replacement with Eudav under the lordship of Maxen - who has come to Britain from outside - is quite parallel to the replacement of Benlli by Cadell at the hands of Germanus, who has come to Britain from outside.  It seems that the class of teyrned/tyranni/under-kings bear the same relationship to the king of the world as they bear to the religious hero: both of them have a right to eject them from their seats and replace them with other figures, more obedient to their will.  Cadell has welcomed Germanus and even killed his only cow for him; Eudav's daughter Elen has accepted the Emperor's command - welcomed him, in another sense, in her father's house.  There is good reason to think that the figure of Benlli was brought in to confront Germanus from another cycle, one in which he was one of Arthur’s giant enemies; but that is not terribly important, since what matters in this account is not the individual figures, but the overall pattern and the meaning it displays.

[2] There is evidence for yet more accounts of Caesar besides the two or three that Geoffrey eventually synthetized.  A fourth, and perhaps a fifth, is/are known and testified in the Triads, though Nennius and Geoffrey ignored it/them.  It seems that Caesar and Casswallawn were contending for the love of a maiden called Fflur, for whose sake Casswallawn disguised himself as a shoemaker (Triad 67) and went as far as Rome itself.  Part of the same legend might also have been that Caesar had also come into possession of Casswallawn’s horse Meinlas (Triads 38, 62), and that, to get it back, Casswallawn disastrously consented that the horses of the Romans should touch the shore of Britain (the issue of getting to the shore is a major one in the Galfridian accounts of the three invasions of Caesar).  Another story, or it might be the same, had Casswallawn himself invade Gaul with an army, along with his sister, the great and mysterious Arianrhod, and two nephews neither of whom corresponds with the nephews in Geoffrey (Triad 35).

[3] A stubborn minority, consisting mostly of Sussex archaeologists, insist that he entered the country through Sussex.

[4] One suspects a ritual death, perhaps such as the one I investigated in the third appendix to my Indiges.

[5] This, by the way, suggests that the text which carried mention of Belinus and the fight at Dorobellum also spoke highly of the royal qualities of Belinus.

[6] BARBIERI, Indiges op.cit., 54-63.

[7]The exile of Cadwallon was apparently a historical fact, even though no trust can be put in any of Geoffrey's romantic account. He seems to have gone to Ireland. What this story shows is that early on a legend of the Bran-Beli type had become attached to him independently from the context of the better known Bran-Beli legend, which is part of the Vortigernid cycle; and this suggests the existence of separate bodies of legend attached to different Welsh royal families, using the same mythological figures and concepts.

[8] This echoes some rather forlorn Welsh appeals to brotherly cohesion between kings, such as the well-known triad in the genealogical text Bonedd gwyr y Gogledd (BROMWICH, Trioedd, 238), of the three Gododdin warbands, the Coeling, the Cynferchyn, and the Cynywyddon, which claims in what Molly Miller finds “an oddly conditional way”, that if they were rode out of one accord, they would never fail. In other words, it made a point about the importance of fraternal agreement between kin: as long as you are together, nothing can defeat you. MILLER, Historicity op.cit., 257.

History of Britain, 407-597 is copyright © 2002, Fabio P. Barbieri. Used with permission.

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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