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Medieval Britain

Histories of the Kings of England (Extracts)

by Geoffrey of Monmouth, translation by Sebastian Evans (1904), 2 August 2008

Written by Geoffrey of Monmouth, archdeacon of Llandsaff (in 1140) and bishop of St Asaph (in 1152).


Book 11 Chapter 13 covers the disastrous defeat of the massed western British forces in or around the year 613.

Determined to defend their territory against Æthelfrith of Bernicia, they engage him in battle at Caer Legion (Chester). Having been defeated there, they fall back (southwards) to Bangor-is-Coed and fight another battle.

The outcome here is more positive for the Britons, although another British king is killed. Æthelfrith's forces have already suffered serious casualties during the first battle and now he fails to occupy Chester, so perhaps his own forces have been too badly weakened after pushing too far into enemy territory.

[Explanatory notes to the text are given in square brackets.]


Book 11, Chapter 13

Ethelbert, therefore, king of the men of Kent, when he saw that the Britons did disdain to make subjection unto Augustine [their Celtic (British) Church, which had remained relatively isolated since Roman administration was removed from the country, had refused to cooperate with the newly arrived members of the Roman Church], and did despise his preaching [see British Church AD 603], took the same in grievous dudgeon and stirred up Ethelfrid, king of the Northumbrians [Æthelfrith of Bernicia], and the other Saxon knights [minor or lesser kings and chieftains whose names are not recorded] to collect a mighty army and go unto the city of Bangor [Bangor-is-Coed] to make away utterly with the Abbot Dinoot and the rest of the clerics that did hold them in scorn.

Agreeably therefore unto his counsel, they mustered a marvellous great army, and upon their way unto the province of the Britons [they] came unto Leicester [clearly an error - Leicester was at the centre of Middle Angle territory. This identification is a confusion with Nennius' Caer Lerion (Leicester) rather than the intended city, Caer Legion (Chester), which would be on the route to Bangor for an army approaching from the north-east], where Brocmail, earl of that city, was expecting their arrival [Brochfael, the 'commander' of Caer Legion, thought to be one of the sons of Brochfael Ysgythrog - Mawn or Iago ap Brochfael, who perhaps governed Pengwern of the west Midlands at this time].

There had come also unto the same city out of the divers [many] provinces of Britain a numberless company of monks and hermits, and more especially from the city of Bangor, to pray for the safety of their people [see Pengwern AD 613 for a description of this and the subsequent battle].

Thereupon, assembling all his armies from every quarter, Ethelfrid, king of the Northumbrians, gave battle unto Brocmail who, making such stand as he could against him with a lesser number of soldiers, quitted the city and fled, but not before he had inflicted exceeding great slaughter upon the enemy [Æthelfrith may win the battle but he clearly suffers a serious number of casualties in the hard fighting before the Britons withdraw. Despite the presence of the monks and hermits, it sounds as though the attack by Æthelfrith has been a surprise, as the Britons have not been able to marshal their greater forces in time to help Brochfael - this soon changes!].

But Ethelfrid, after he had taken the city, understanding the reason wherefore the said monks had come unto the city, bade his men first turn their arms against them, and thus upon that very day one thousand two hundred of them, adorned with the palm of martyrdom, did obtain a seat in the kingdom of Heaven [they were slaughtered by the Angles, with Æthelfrith clearly wanting revenge for his losses and for the perceived snub by the British Church in 603].

These, when the said tyrant of the Saxons went forward on his march towards the city of Bangor, hearing of his mad outrage, the dukes [kings and princes] of the Britons, to wit Blederic, duke of Cornwall [king of Dumnonia], Margadud, King of the South Welsh [possibly the same as Geoffrey's Maredudd, but seemingly a fictitious replacement for Nowy Hen of Demetia, possibly named after Maredudd ap Blethyn, king of Powys during Geoffrey's own earlier years], and Cadran, King of the North [Catamanus or Cadvan of Gwynedd, seemingly not king there until after this battle], came from all parts to meet him, and joining battle with him, drove him fleeing wounded before them [Æthelfrith is apparently wounded and his forces defeated], but so passing great was the number of his army slain, that it was reckoned not less than about ten thousand and sixty-six had fallen [Æthelfrith's forces suffer heavy casualties. Does this weaken him significantly? He is killed just three years later - by a rival Anglo-Saxon king - and patrolling his own borders, not on a grandiose campaign].

On the side of the Britons likewise fell Blederic, duke of Cornwall, who was their commander in those battles [it's unclear why a Dumnonian king would have seniority over the more regionally-local kings, although while Cadvan would be counted as a high king of the remaining independent Britons of the island during his reign, his father is not, that honour falling to Ceretic of Elmet. In fact, Cadvan becomes king of Gwynedd in the same year as this battle and is immediately counted as high king, taking the honour from Ceretic, perhaps specifically due to his efforts during this battle and the important defeat of Æthelfrith.].


Additional Sources

Bartrum, Peter Clement - A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about AD 1000, available online via the National Library of Wales

Nennius - Historia Brittonum (The History of the Britons) J A Giles, Ed & Trans, 1841, published as part of Six Old English Chronicles (Henry G Bohn, London, 1848)



Text is free from copyright. Explanatory notes © P L Kessler and Edward Dawson for the History Files.