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

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Appendix 2: The Lost legend of Gwyrangcon

Fabio P. Barbieri


At the end of his historical account, Nennius appended a list of twenty-eight ciuitates of the island of Britain.  There have been attempts to explain Nennius' list in terms of Roman antiquities; the claim has even been made that they are "all" Roman cantonal capitals.  How that conclusion is reached when more than half a dozen of them are dubious or indubitably legendary - Cair Guorthigirn, Cair Mincip, Cair Colun, Cair Cuosteint, Cair Maunguid, Cair Leirion, Cair Guirangcon - puzzles me; and in the case of Cair Guorthigirn (Caer Gwrtheyrn, the legendary capital of Gwynessi), if the place was not legendary, it was an Iron Age earthwork with no pretension to Roman status.  It is my view that Nennius, a keen reader of Gildas, found mention of twenty-eight ciuitates, some of them ruined, in his source.  He, who clearly had no idea of what a proper town was like, rummaged through all his storehouse of geographical knowledge and Welsh lore until he had found the names of twenty-eight towns and royal fortresses.  A good few of them have names of known legendary heroes or villains, Vortigern, Caradoc, Constantine, Gwyrangcon; which, in my view, argues in favour of their legendary character - though Cair Caradoc may be Caradoc, Herefordshire.

The case of Gwyrangcon is in point.  Gwyrangcon, we remember, was the supposed king of Kent from whom Vortigern, according to Nennius, took the kingdom to give it to Hengist.  The list has two cities - Caer Ceint, "the royal fortress of Kent", obviously Canterbury; and Caer Gwyrangcon, the royal fortress of Gwyrangcon, which a puzzled John Morris (for once, thankfully, not jumping to conclusions) could only suggest was another name for Canterbury.

To make sense of the extremely scanty data about this personage we have to remember that we are seeing him through Nennian eyes, and specifically through Nennius' effort to edit the certainly not Welsh legend of Hengist and Horsa into O.  We remember that there was an excellent reason - quite apart from the Kentish origin of the whole legend - for the story of England's supposed founder to be located in Kent: namely, the structural parallels with the mission of Augustine.  If, therefore, we hold the legend of Gwyrangcon to be Welsh in origin, we have no original reason at all to believe him to have been connected with Kent before Nennius.  Caer Gwyrangcon, which is no part of Nennius' narrative, is peculiarly connected with Gwyrancgcon himself, while Caer Ceint is simply "the fortress of Kent" - in other words, Canterbury (Cant-wara-byrig, [at] the fortress of the men of Kent).

The fact that Nennius' Caer Ceint is in effect a translation of the English name of Canterbury means that his account reflects a condition of learning in which the ancient British name of the capital of the Cantii had been forgotten or never known, and where it was known by a version of the English name; but there is reason to suspect that the name of Durouernum survived, in some circles, until fairly late.  Geoffrey uncomprehendingly locates the war council of Cassivellaunus - with his nephews Arviragus and Tenvantius and his otherwise unexplained army commander Belinus, at Dorobellum, though he more correctly locates the great battle between Britons and Romans at Durovernia.  Belinus vanishes from the scene after his one appearance at Dorobellum - and so does Dorobellum itself.  Now these two names turn up in Nennius, to the exclusion of both Cassivellaunus and Durovernum: Belinus is the king of Britain, and Dorobellum his army commander.

This suggests that Geoffrey had two sources: one in which Belinus was Caesar's enemy, one in which Cassivellaunus was; one in which the confrontation was at Dorobellum, one at Durovernum.  The fact that the name of Dorobellum is found in close proximity to that of Belinus suggests that the Belinus source was the one which located the action at Dorobellum; and there is a slightly more complicated correspondence with Nennius.  To him, Dorobellus is not a place but a person; but he is closely associated with Belinus as the enemy of Caesar, and we notice that while he is said to be Belinus' army commander, that is what Belinus himself becomes in Geoffrey, while Dorobellum becomes a place.  The likelihood however is that the Nennian Dorobellus gained his identity by way of being the lord of a fortress of that name; being a Celtic lord, we must expect him to have a territory of his own, and the correspondence between a personal name and a place is best explained by connecting the person to the place (especially when we are dealing with legend).  In other words, the clash between Belinus and Caesar's Romans was connected with the lord of a place called Dorobellum - obviously, Durovernum.

Interestingly, in the Nennian version the geographical connection is forgotten, and all the three legendary battles take place "at the mouth of the Thames", that is at or near London.  (Even in Nennius, the description of Caesar's landings do have a strong component of historical and classical features, though the overall structure is wholly legendary - three successive invasions over a period of three years.)  In the indubitably later Cassivellaunus version, which Geoffrey understandably favours, the identity and location of Durovernia are quite clear; the fact that it seems to have faded from sight in Nennius, but come back with great clarity in Geoffrey (who, as we know from his ditherings and mistakes in the matter of the cloister of Ambrius/dinas Emrys/Amesbury, was not always so clear on the geography of his sources) suggests that geographical traditions had survived in manuscripts unknown to the earlier compiler.

It is clear that the accounts of both Nennius and Geoffrey are at the end of a long evolution in which several versions, each preserving or misunderstanding separate items of information, must have co-existed in various parts of the British/Welsh world; in which it was possible for Nennius to receive a version in which the geographical nature of Dorobellum was ignored or forgotten, and its lord retained the name while the action shifted to London; while Geoffrey could receive not one, but two versions in both of which Dorobellum and Durobernia were undeniably place-names in Kent.  What is significant is that the legend was, from the beginning - and that means long before Nennius - set in Kent; which may suggest a traditional view of Kent as the gateway for invasions into Britain.

Somewhere in Britain, the identity of the English Cantwarabyrig with Dorobellum or Durovernum was remembered; but it was not known to Nennius, who knows Dorobellum only as a person.  That, is the state of knowledge or ignorance in which the capital of Kent could be understood as Caer Ceint seems typical of Nennius himself; and this seems to agree with what we have seen of his invention of Episford.

What Nennius says about Kent springs from merely contemporary knowledge, with no earlier survival whatever; and it follows that there is no reason to trust his placing of Caer Gwyrangcon after Caer Ceint - suggesting geographical closeness - let alone his description of Gwyrangcon as a king of Kent.  All that we know of Gwyrangcon, in effect, is that he was the first British lord to be dispossessed by the Saxons, and that Nennius tells us that it happened at Vortigern's bidding.  As I have pointed out that the legend of Vortigern is a sort of reversal of the legends of Roman conquest, reversing each of the points of contact between a masculine Rome and a feminine Britain, the expulsion of Gwyrangcon in favour of the folk of Ronwein’s tribe does seem to parallel the expulsion of Beli by the Romans, to be replaced, in Maxen, by Eudav and his house, and in the parallel Gildasian account, by an introduced Roman nobility of rectores.

The likelihood is that what we have here is a fossile of an alternative, lost tradition of the arrival of the Saxons, inserted by Nennius at the time and place - Kent - where Kentish tradition, hallowed by the cathedral scriptorium at Canterbury, placed English national beginnings, and where earlier British traditions placed, not the Saxon, but the Roman invasion.  Where Caer Gwyrangcon might have been before Nennius relocated its namesake king to Kent, I have no way of knowing, unless some Nennian manuscript somewhere has one of those useful glosses by which long-dead and nameless monks added what they knew, or thought they knew, to the lore of their elders[1].

Note


[1] Alternatively, we may think of a structural parallel with Vortigern's own withdrawal to Caer Gwrtheyrn in Cumberland.  That we have no evidence whatever that Gwyrangcon was a legendary king of Kent, does not mean that he was not - only that we do not know it.  And if he was, then the fact that a Caer Gwyrangcon was known to Nennius, different from and alternative to Caer Ceint, might suggest that when he was driven out of his capital - like Vortigern in the legend that we have - and forced to find another site where to preserve his diminished royalty.

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

Comments to: Fabio P. Barbieri


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