Nennius’ Historia Brittonum

Nennius was an eighth-century historian. However, unlike the much more careful Bede, Nennius was, as one modern historian writes “unrestrainedly inventive” [Gerhard Herm, The Celts, London, 1976]. Not all of Nennius can be dismissed as he apparently had access to no-longer available 5th century sources, but neither can he be entirely trusted.

The earlist copy in England is part of the Harley Collection (MS 3859) which was the library formed by Robert Harley (1661-1724), 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, a politician, and his son Edward Harley (1689-1741), the 2nd earl who was a book collector and patron of the arts. Edward Harley bequeathed the library to his widow and after her death to pass to their daughter Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland; however the ladies sold the manuscripts to the nation in 1753 for a nominal £10,000 under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum; the Harley manuscripts form one of the foundation collections of the British Library.

The translation is from “Six Old English Chronicles” edited by John Allan Giles. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1848.

Chartres MS 98 (c. 900)
Vatican Reg. 1964 (11th century)
British Library Harleian MS 3859 (c. 1100)
Cambridge Corpus Christi 139 (1164)
British Library Cotton Caligula A VIII (12th century)
Lebor na hUidre This is the “Irish Nennius,” called in the manuscript “Lebor Bretnach” (the Book of the Britons) found in The Book of the Dun Cow (c.1100)

The MS of the Historia Brittonum mostly used is the MS Harleian 3859, which is the only MS that contains the whole of the Historia Brittonum in its fullest form (but not the prologue), and one of only two MS that contain C. 57-66. It also contains the by far oldest versions of the Annales Cambriae and the Welsh dynastic genealogies. The various texts of the Historia Brittonum can differ widely. Harleian 3859 was written at the end of the 11th century from an earlier prototype and probably edited by an ecclesiastical figure (possibly a monk named Nennius) with a later appendix added. No author is named, but ‘Nennius’ is usually used.