The author will suppose that any academic has cringed when they saw a chapter devoted to two sources that are not extant – no fragment of either document has ever been recovered. Yet, the one-time existence of both the Northern Memorandum and The Kentish Source has been largely accepted in academic circles, so it remains only to extrapolate as much as possible from them.
History buffs are probably asking why this chapter comes after an essay on later materials. Both the Northern Memorandum and The Kentish Source have complex and intertwined histories. They have also most effected some of the last and most detailed source materials on post-Roman Britain.
We will begin with The Northern Memorandum for reasons that will become obvious as the essay goes on. Only two extant histories directly accessed it – Historia Brittonum and the Annales Cambriae. The earliest post-Roman figure they both name is Ambrosius, whose career began in the range 448×461. The earliest event they have in common is Badon which can be safely dated to the range 478×491. The present author is inclined to favor Badon as the earliest piece of information in the original source for two reasons: First, the Battle of Badon is led by the same person in both sources and accomplishes the same result. Arthur is a northern figure even if Badon is probably not. Second, in Historia Brittonum Ambrosius’ main function is to serve as a propaganda vehicle; that may be the only reason he was included in there. The Northern Memoranda’s political history originally focused on Urien and ended in the late sixth century with his death.
The original Northern Memorandum covered as much as a century and a half of history. It was not a fluid history though, before the Urien alliance, northern figures and events are mentioned sporadically and often inaccurately. For instance, the section on Arthur immediately precedes Urien even though there were probably decades between their careers. The history makes no effort to segway the two figures, either.
There is no question the main figure was Urien. Speaking of Arthur we can be sure it either gave a battle list which has been shown to be a composite from several different kings, or mentioned Badon as Arthur’s decisive battle along with a single personal detail about his actions there.
With Urien the information becomes more detailed and personal. As we will see below, the Historia Brittonum author had his own propagandistic reasons for making Urien such a prominent part of his history. That might explain why we are given his allies, a specific and likely battle site, and an enemy. However, there is an independent body of poetry (Taliesin), which confirms these facts were connected to Urien. Even better, the details of Urien’s death focus on him specifically and are also consistent with the bardic tradition.
The clear interest in Urien tells us three more details about the history. First, only a contemporary or near-contemporary author would have had access to such details. Second, that the original historian was partisan toward Urien, whether because he was related, was patronized by Urien or a relative, or simply admired him is unclear.
Finally, that the memorandum was drawn up in a monastery at some time during the era covered in this monolith. It could only have been written in a monastery because only bards and religious people had the training to record history during this era and of the two groups bards would not have remembered so much easily accessed historical information.
Next question, when was the Northern Memorandum written down? As the present author and others have demonstrated, the memorandum is unreliable when it speaks about Arthur and Ambrosius, figures of the late fifth and early sixth centuries. In fact, the historical horizon in the Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae is roughly 575. If the events from that date on are accurate, then the Northern Memorandum must have been written down within living memory of them – at the very latest perhaps 645. To determine exactly when the document might have been written, though, we must first understand exactly where it might have been written.
In the Historia Brittonum Rhun, an otherwise unknown son of Urien, is mentioned in conjunction with baptizing Edwin. It is not odd that a son of Urien might have gone into religion; as the author has demonstrated later sons were commonly put into monasteries to avoid inheritance conflicts and as a safety in case all of a king’s eldest sons were killed in combat. Nor is it unlikely that Rhun might have baptized Edwin; Edwin spent his youth running from one kingdom to another and might well have spent time in Reged.
What is noteworthy is that a Reged prince is connected to such a prominent Germanic king’s baptism. That Rhun’s granddaughter would marry Oswiu, also mentioned in the Historia Brittonum, is another interesting detail. It suggests that the Rheged dynasty was significant well into the seventh century.
Just as obvious, whoever was recording the Northern Memorandum thought that both Rhun and his granddaughter were important enough to mention. That bears repeating; in an era where only the most famous ecclesiastics figured in histories and the English were the enemy, an otherwise unknown man named Rhun is credited with baptizing one of the most powerful Germanic kings of the time. At a time when women were only useful for the political alliances they represented, Rieinmellth is not only named, but her lineage is listed back to Urien.
What those two unlikely credits mean is that a monastery associated with Rhun recorded all the information in the Northern Memorandum. Because we know the document was associated with Rhun we can approximate its date of creation. Rieinmellth was married to Oswiu, who was a prince in exile from 616 to 633, during which time a political marriage with Reged might have been beneficial. This means the Northern Memorandum must have been written at or after 616. Oswiu remarried early in his own reign of 642-670, so that by maybe 650 he was no longer with Rieinmellth and the notice would have been out of date. This gives us a range of roughly 616×650 for the date of the original Northern Memorandum.
I have elsewhere speculated that 75 years is the maximum that any first-hand information could have survived in an oral environment among ecclesiastics (an 80 year-old informing a 5 year-old), while 60 years (75 year-old telling a fifteen year-old) is much more probable. The former possibility would give a writer up to 100 years of history before he wrote if he was a 25 year-old author while the latter give provide a more likely 85 years. If those calculations are corrected, then the limited information to be found in Historia Brittonum about Urien is probably accurate. It also explains why the events associated with Arthur (c. 480-520) and Ambrosius were not as well remembered.
As significant as the range of 616×650 is, though, neither the Historia Brittonum nor the Annales Cambriae accessed it directly. We know this because of the sudden interest in things Anglo-Saxon after 650. In Historia Brittonum, there is a body of Anglo-Saxon genealogies. The Historia Brittonum also mentions sporadic islandwide events up to the Battle of Nechtanesmere in 685. Annales Cambriae has three Anglo-Saxon oriented additions after 650 – the Battle of Cogfry between Northumbria and Mercia (644), Penda’s death (657), and the first celebration of Easter by the Roman method among the Saxons (665). Most of this information could have been added when Alchfrith worked with the history between 664 and 671 during his bid to usurp his father’s Northumbrian throne. It was probably still in Anglo-Saxon hands when it recorded the events up through Nechtanesmere, though there has been no speculation as to who might have recorded the events, or for what purpose.
The second highly influential but hypothetical source for the period is The Kentish Source. It is important to understand it because Bede, the original author of the Historia Brittonum, and the tenth-century composer of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle all relied on it for their early post-Roman history.
We can be sure that The Kentish Source was created in Kent; though we know from archealogy and Roman documents that there were foederati all along the eastern and southern coast of England from the fourth century Bede, Historia Brittonum, and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle all claim that only Kent was initially occupied, and that it was occupied around the middle of the fifth century. This assertion would have given Kent the claim of primacy over all the other Germanic kingdoms and would have benefited no other kingdom.
Knowing the place of origin helps us with dating The Kentish Source too. The earliest possible year that it could have been written is about 580. That is about when Bertha, Æthelberht’s wife, arrived from Frankia. She came with her personal priest. At the time, the pair were the only two Germanic Christians on the island. Before Bertha, no person in Kent would have had the knowledge of Latin necessary to write it. That early a date seems unnecessary though. As the author has shown elsewhere, Kent’s history doesn’t become historical until the time of Eormenric, Æthelberht’s father, and he may have been ruling in 580 and possibly up to 593.
Theoretically, the latest possible date for the history would have been 729, the year Bede wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica. Of course, that date would require that Bede sent to Kent for information and that Kent responded by writing up the entire Kentish origin-story before Bede had the chance to get suspicious. The present author can say from personal experience that histories take years. Also, the name-forms seem more seventh than eighth century.
A more likely date range can be found by using what we have learned about the Northern Memorandum and the law codes. The original version of the Northern Memorandum was probably written by Rhun, the son of the history’s main hero Urien. It may have been written after Urien was dead but was clearly inspired by him. Meanwhile, the laws of Æthelberht, Ine, and Wihtred were all written when a uniquely powerful king was at the height of his powers and had the political strength to reshape history to his needs.
In Kent, Æthelberht was far and away the most powerful king in that kingdom’s history. He had reached the height of his power by 597 (when he accepted a formal Christian delegation from Rome) and had probably faded by the time he died in 616. His son apostatized when he succeeded to the throne, making 597-616 the most likely range for The Kentish Source.
If it was written in that period it would explain the historical horizon starting around 590 and the fact that only his father Eormenric’s name is remembered. At a time when the maximum reasonable life-span for a layman was fifty-five, Æthelberht might have been the only person alive who still remembered anything about his father by the time of his death at fifty-six, and for many years before then.
Alternatively, it has been seen in addressing the historical horizons of Gildas and the Northern Memorandum that living memory among layman can survive up to 50 years (a 55 year-old man telling a five year-old) while an ecclesiastic would be in a position to hear history at roughly twenty and might live till 80. If Æthelberht (born c. 560) relayed history about himself and his paternity to ecclesiastics in 616, that information might have been available until roughly 676. Though Kent was independent and strong rarely up until that point it is reasonable that it could have written a history during any point in those decades.
Much more can be learned of the sources by studying the individual extant histories that used them. Bede is the logical first step here. He is the earliest historian to have used either the Northern Memorandum or The Kentish Source; his Historia Ecclesiastica contains elements of The Kentish Source. As luck would have it, he is also the most widely used and influential source for early Britain. What he wrote was considered absolutely factual among all later historians of the period because of his impeccable Latin and the precision of his language; qualities of training and a disciplined mind. In the modern era these talents have also fooled many generations of scholars into believing the information that he gives is trustworthy as well. It has only been in the last half century that his motives and the materials he used have been carefully scrutinized. It is because of these efforts that he has been assigned a more realistic standing among British historians.
Bede’s first source was Gildas, the angry British ecclesiastic we have already met. If you will remember, he wrote an open letter to several kings of Britain warning them that their immorality had caused God to bring the Germanic people to the island and that, if they returned to that behavior, God would again punish the British people through the invaders. As a prelude to his warning he narrated a history of Roman Britain which was vague in names and time from the beginning but is entirely inaccurate much beyond the middle of the fifth century, the edge of living history when he wrote.
Gildas was not the only place Bede found his information. He also acknowledged that Albinus, Abbot of the Monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul, gave him access to Kent’s early history through Archpriest Nothhelm; The Kentish Source.
This is where he found Hengest and Horsa. We know this because from his landing at Thanet until he disappears from history, Hengest remains in Kent. Only a campaign by his son and nephew take place outside of the kingdom. Hengest also served The Kentish Source’s purpose, which was to raise Kent above the other kingdoms. We know this because Hengest was either a mythical figure or a person of legend and therefore an illustrious addition to Kent’s house.
It is also where he found Vortigern, the powerful king who managed to unite Britain under one leader after the Romans left and the fool who was manipulated by Hengest into allowing the Anglo-Saxons into Britain. Vortigern is the Anglo-Saxon translation of Gildas’ superbus tyrannus, or proud sovereign. Vortigern, and superbus tyrranus, are also forms of Welsh Gwrtheyrn. As we will see, Gwrtheyrn was a powerful ruler in the south during the early sixth century; whoever wrote The Kentish Source either mistakenly or intentionally confused him with the villain of De Excidio Britanniae.
Bede was also provided some information about Octha and Oisc. According to most extant versions of the Historia Ecclesiastica Octha was the son of Orric surnamed Oisc who was the son of Hengest, while in the Cotton Vespasian manuscript Oct(h)a was the son of Hengest and the father of Oisc. The origins of Octha and possibly Orric are unknown, but Oisc is a linguistic descendant of Ansehis.
Nothhelm also gave Bede information on Kent beginning a few years before the Archbishop Augustine landed in 597 and up to Bede’s present. In that he was not simply a vehicle for Kent’s official dynastic history, relaying Æthelberht’s accomplishments and the superiority of Kent, he was a servant of the church. The fact that Notthelm was made Archbishop of Canterbury only six years after the Historia Ecclesiastica was finished in 735 is evidence he accomplished both tasks. He was careful to show that Kent, and Canterbury in particular, was the first bastion of the Christian church in Britain; Augustine’s official sanction by the pope is made much of as is his landing and first establishment at Canterbury. Bede voiced some concerns over the information he received from The Kentish Source on occasion, but from what is to be found in his Historia Ecclesiastica he did not edit its contents.
In addition to Gildas and The Kentish Source, Bede used information from Cyneberht, Esi, and the Lastingham communities, but only in order to fill out the more recent history and not without reference to other written and oral sources all over Northumbria.
Bede not only copied from Gildas, Notthelm, and the historical records of several monastic communities, he also had his own biases and these influenced how he wrote history as well. As Dr. Miller long ago made note, Bede edited the information he had in three ways – by omission, interpretation, and style. He omitted items that did not fall into his own themes, interpreted the data in light of his English perspective on Britain’s history, and changed words to fit his own priorities. Bede was not a neutral historian; he was just as prejudiced as all of the sources at his disposal.
First and foremost, Bede was a Bernician. Whenever the opportunity arose he elevated Bernicia’s importance, preferably at the expense of her enemies, mainly Mercia and Deira. He called religion into his book as well; Bernician military defeats were described in terms of divine anger for a king’s actions, while successes were due to the divine support of Bernician supremacy. By attributing Bernicia’s fortunes to God he was implying that Bernicia was divinely sanctioned in the same way the Hebrews had been in the Torah. The finished history was offered to the Bernician king, a man he clearly respected and admired.
Bede was also biased toward his religion, Roman Catholicism, over the archaic Celtic version practiced by the British and Irish. He made no effort to hide his leanings, either. Every time religion came into play in his history – from Edwin’s stay with the Britons, through the massacre of Briton monks after the Battle of Chester, to the Council of Whitby – in the first instance he ignored the Celts. In the second he rationalized that they prayed against the Northumbrians and had deserved to be massacred. The Council of Whitby, revolving around the controversy between the Celtic and standard practices of the church, is given a full chapter and dealt with fairly but only because by popular agreement the results showed the misguidance of the British peoples; they had failed to modernize with the rest of the church and so were completely in the wrong.
Even though the Irish also practiced the Celtic version of Christianity Bede managed to avoid attacking them, though. He might have ignored their fault because the Irish had originally brought Christianity to Northumbria. Alternatively, Celtic Christianity might have just been a vehicle for attacking the Britons, who had been Northumbria’s enemy for hundreds of years by his time. There is no way to tell what guided Bede there.
The Britons were Bede’s last prejudice, and Gildas was a perfect tool for his assaults. As the reader will recall, Gildas had spent the first part of his letter explaining how the British had repeatedly sinned against God and been punished by renewed Anglo-Saxon attacks – because like Bede, he had seen his people as God’s chosen. All Bede had to do was eliminate the sermonizing and update the history to his century and his message came across clearly. The Britons were morally inferior to the Germanic peoples and deserved to be conquered.
His altered history made the Germanic peoples the natural focus for the remainder of his work. When he introduced Hengest and Horsa into his history he almost forgot about the British in favor of his own people. He does mention the Battle of Badon in passing and promises to return to the subject, but even that acknowledgment of British history was too much to follow up on.
The next historical source is the Historia Brittonum, compiled in roughly 829 by an unknown author. Mervyn Frych had established a new dynasty in Gwynedd when he had claimed the throne through a female line in 825. His patronization of the Historia Brittonum was an attempt to use his family history to strengthen his family’s royal legitimacy. He hoped that his ancestry from the great British hero Urien would help him to unite the British kingdoms against the English so they could drive the invaders into the sea. To that end he collected all information on British history he could find, including Northern Memorandum and, through Bede, parts of The Kentish Source. Then he edited it to suit his purposes.
Anything negative about the other British kings would have been counterproductive, so he only used the positive materials and the materials that could be made positive. Arthur and Gwrtheyrn were famous kings so their victories against the English were told with whatever details were at Gwynedd’s disposal. The foundation story of Powys’ dynasty, the family Merfyn had married into, was also given a place. Garmon, a famous saint, was included in the Cadell story some time after 840 as a result of Gwynedd contact with Charles the Bald, and confusion with the more famous St. Germanus.
Back in Gwynedd, Merfyn merged the previous dynasty with an even earlier native one that had Roman ties, the Roman officer Padarn. He connected it to a third dynasty which was from the North, imitating his own migration and suggesting that his dynasty would be just as powerful and long-lived as it had been.
Urien was doubly important in Merfyn Frych’s scheme. First of all, he was the most famous ancestor in Merfyn’s lineage. As the founder of a new dynasty in Gwynedd, advertising Urien’s exploits was a good way for Merfyn to sell his own legitimacy. Second, Merfyn found information in the Northern Memorandum about Urien being a part of a loose but successful British coalition. He recognized the usefulness of the history and made use of it. Though the alliance’s main enemy had probably not been the English, Merfyn had the history altered so that the English were the only enemy. Whether or not Urien was the leader in the Northern Memorandum, Merfyn had the history written as though he was. Urien as the confederacy’s leader paralleled his own aspirations – to lead the British kingdoms against the English.
In the tenth century Merfyn’s descendant Hywel Dda, the the Dyfed king responsible for The Laws of Hywel Dda, had the Historia Brittonum rewritten. This is probably where more of the The Kentish Source materials were added. Hywel was, after all, in regular contact with Athelstan and acknowledged him as an overlord. It only makes sense that Athelstan would have made the English historical records available to him, especially as they were historical evidence of English superiority and showed how they had legitimately gained power over the British, as Athelstan was legitimately superior to Hywel Dda.
The Dyfed king had other uses in mind, however. He had his sights set on conquering Powys, and Kent’s origin-story was the perfect vehicle for undermining that dynasty’s credibility. It would not have mattered to him that Gildas had invented an over-king to explain the Germanic presence, or that Kent had fused that figure with the recent king Gwrtheyrn, latinizing them both to Vortigern, to prove Kent’s primacy over the other Germanic kingdoms. All Hywel Dda cared about was that
Gwrtheyrn by his time was associated with Powys and he wanted to demonize Powys’ dynasty. In attacking one of the kingdom’s earliest and most famous rulers he could do just that, and The Kentish Source’s portrayal of Vortigern was exactly what he was after. He followed The Kentish Source’s lead in translating superbus tyrannus as Vortigern and translating that to British as Gwrtheyrn. He accepted the story that Gwrtheyrn was an islandwide ruler who was guilty of inviting the Germanic peoples and then allowing them to take control of the English lands whole, portraying him as a weak-minded man who was easily manipulated by others.
The editor even embellished, repeatedly portraying scenes where Gwrtheyrn was taken advantage of or acted immorally – his seduction by Hengest’s daughter, his dowry of Kent, the ambush that left his nobles dead, and his humiliation at Dinas Emrys by Gildas’ hero Ambrosius. As a coup de tat, he wrote that Gwrtheyrn had slept with his own daughter who had borne him a son; St. Germanus (Garmon) summoned God’s wrath as a result. It is Hywel Dda’s version that became the foundation for Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history of Britain, and from there became the traditional way of seeing post-Roman Britain.
The second British source to use the Northern Memoranda was Annales Cambriae. It was kept as a contemporary annal kept at St. David’s between 795 and 954, because of the annals focus on Maredudd and his descendants as well as Hyfaidd and Llywarch, five St. David’s bishops, and the record that a city near St. David’s had burned.
The information up to 795 was added between 795 and 954. Before 613 the entries are based mainly on Isidore’s Chronicle and the Irish Annals but also include events of local and islandwide importance that are not found there like the birth of David and Camlann.
After 612, the Annales Cambriae becomes more interested in British events. Hughes believed this section had been derived from a Northern Chronicle because it seems to focus on Cadwallon and the other Gwynedd kings as they fought with Penda and Mercia against Northumbria. However, as we have seen with the Irish Annals, the Northern Memorandum, and the later section of Annales Cambriae, contemporary record keeping is usually accompanied by a record of local abbots and bishops; there are no Gwynedd abbots mentioned here, nor is it clear from the language that the entries are even contemporary.
This section cannot have come from Historia Brittonum, either, because it does not even mention the history’s central figure Urien. Nor does it agree with Historia Brittonum on the year Ceretic was expelled from Elmet during Edwin’s reign, Annales Cambriae places it in 616 while Historia Brittonum says 616. Historia Brittonum also places the restoration of Iddeu, the Battle of Gai, and the death of Penda in that year while the annals name the Battle of Gai, the death of Penda, and the installment of Oswiu in three consecutive years. Historia Brittonum says Cadwaladr died during Oswiu’s reign while the annals say he died fourteen years afterward. There is no doubt that the two sources are similar, even in their biases, indicating an original common source. Most likely all the northern British information came from the Northern Memoranda. Because of this connection, the British historical horizon of Annales Cambriae may well stretch back to the late sixth century.
The motivation for adding in the entries before 795 is unknown. Hywel Dda was interested in rewriting history, so the work theoretically could have been done during his reign (904-950). If he had authorized it, though, why did he authorize a notice for Ambrosius and two for Arthur but not mention his ancestor Urien? It seems more likely to this scholar that Annales Cambriae before 795 represents an alternative to Historia Brittonum’s history that made use of the same Cambro-Irish community as the Historia Brittonum. Though it did not directly oppose the propaganda of Gwynedd-created Historia Brittonum, it did omit any mention of Urien or his sons Owain and Rhun. This was most likely done to eliminate the very credibility Merfyn had been using them for. If Annales Cambriae was written by some party opposed to Merfyn’s family, the pre-795 information was added between 829 and 904, the year in which Merfyn’s descendant Hywel inherited Dyfed. At that point, he would have ensured that all writings coming out of the kingdom were pro-Urien.
Written only decades later, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the last historical work that certainly accessed The Kentish Source. The document extends up to 1110, but was originally written during Alfred of Wessex’s kingship (871-899), most likely in 891 when the original records end. When Alfred inherited the throne, Wessex was the only English kingdom that had not been conquered by the Danes yet. He spent most of his first few years as king in hiding from the Danes.
Alfred, or at least someone with the same goals as Alfred, wrote The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. We know this because it records a pro-Wessex view of English history, but never at the expense of the other kingdoms. Whoever wrote the first part of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did it in the hopes of using the individual accomplishments of the English people weaved into a common history to unite the English people against the Danes.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle accepted the history as found in The Kentish Source and Bede and followed the most reasonable extrapolations to be made from both sources. In it, Hengest and Horsa landed in Britain, outwitted Vortigern, and fought battles against the British. The only real changes it made in the original settlement story was in reordering Hengest’s battles against the British so that they appeared to be English victories instead of British ones, and in providing an exact chronology for the events Historia Brittonum had added.
The real genius was what came next. Bede had said that Ælle of Sussex had been the first of the English over-kings. The patron of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle went one step further, providing Sussex with an origin legend that followed Kent’s as the second earliest landing.
Bede had said that Ceawlin of Wessex had followed as the third over-king, so only then was Wessex’s founding written in. The early Wessex entries were managed delicately. The chronicler was obviously careful about respecting the other existing English kingdoms. Perhaps more importantly, it was an opportunity to rewrite the kingdom’s history. In The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, there is strong evidence that the most active members of at least three early Wessex dynasties were blended into a single family history.
Only then was Bernicia’s origin given, in 547. It should also be noted that The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did not date the establishment of Deira, East Anglia, or Essex – a fact that has never been pointed out let alone speculated on.
For East Anglia and Essex, the reasoning seems fairly straightforward. East Anglia may not have been Christian and dominant long enough to generate an origin story of its own, and of all the English kingdoms Essex was never in a dominant position over the others.
As to Deira, the situation is a little more complicated. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did have access to the Historia Brittonum or the Northern Memorandum because it uses the synchronization of Maelgwn’s death and Ida’s foundation of Bernicia to date the latter event to 547. However, the Historia Brittonum also says that Soemil “separated Deur from Berneich”. Further on, the Anglian collection of genealogies shows that this Soemil was five generations earlier than Ælle, and Bede had already synchronized him with the ninth decade of the sixth century using his story about St. Gregory seeing Anglian slaves in a Roman slave market before he was made pope in 590. This would have placed Soemil in the fifth century. It has previously been demonstrated that the author of the chronicle was more than capable of such synchronization with Kent’s foundation and the weaving of the Sussex and Wessex foundation myths, so, why was Soemil not put in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?
It seems simple enough to the present writer. Even if the chronicle writer had been able to manipulate dates so that all the foundation myths still agreed with Bede, the only real accomplishment would have been to create a third kingdom that had existed before Wessex. If that was not deterrent enough, validating Soemil would have caused the additional problem of possibly reinvigorating that age-old conflict between Deira and Bernicia by providing evidence that the conquered kingdom had a greater antiquity than its conqueror Bernicia.
In other respects, the chronicle was thorough. It gave all the major kingdom’s king-lists and genealogies, along with a common history of the English people – its victories, defeats, alliances, and wars, the obits of its bishops and other notables. The intention was to help readers to remember their common origin and instill them with a national pride that would be necessary to finally defeat the Danes. It used additional information from The Kentish Source in providing information about Æthelberht’s early battles and possibly the Battle of Dyrham.
Bede gives us the least diluted version of The Kentish Source. It was originally a history created for the purpose of showing the dynasty of Kent as the first and foremost Germanic dynasty in Britain. With his own idiocyncrasies, Bede connected Hengest’s son and nephew with Northumbria, but the majority of the text remained focused on the South.
Historia Brittonum recorded the most accurate version of the Northern Memorandum, and with the help of the Taliesin and Aneirin poems we can see an even clearer version of the work as a history of the north centered around the career of Urien but including bits of the legendary past like Ambrosius, Arthur, and Ida. Historia Brittonum also used The Kentish Source secondhand through Bede, with the Hywel Dda edition adding in enough details about the dynastic rival Gwrtheyrn to illustrate him as an incompetent fool who had no right to rule Powys, and as its founder only magnifying his crimes and the dynasty’s flaws.
Annales Cambriae omitted everything about Urien and materials related to him (like Catraeth?), possibly in an attempt to circumvent or ignore the Gwynedd dynasty that was descended from him. In doing so, though, it gives us a glimpse of other items in the Northern Memorandum – Ambrosius and Arthur are still present, but the Battle of Ardferydd and the obit years of several important northern kings make their first appearance here. The dates for these events are probably guesses, but they are educated guesses.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tried to rationalize the information in Bede and expounded upon his stories, putting them into a specific chronology in order to show the development of the English people and the hierarchy of its kingdoms. With its additional information regarding Dyrham and Æthelberht, it clearly accessed The Kentish Source directly as well.
What does this tell us about the Northern Memorandum and The Kentish Source? It reinforces the idea that they have been the basis for our perceptions of post-Roman history. Their main points remain the main points of any study of the period. Their biases can be found in every extant history we possess and was accepted and integrated into every modern history until historians first started to understand their underlying motives.
The essay should also have demonstrated that neither the Northern Memorandum nor The Kentish Source were stagnant works. The original writer of the Northern Memorandum would have had no reason to record information about the foundations of Bernicia and Deira because it would not have been of any interest to him or the British community he was writing for. When Alchfrith compiled and updated the memorandum as part of his campaign against Oswiu, though, he would have used that information to generate support among the nobles and warriors of both regions.
The same can be said of The Kentish Source. In Bede’s time, the important secular events of the post-Roman past revolved Hengest and his manipulations of Vortigern because it was still important to justify the Anglo-Saxon’s possession of England. To Bede, and probably to the composer of The Kentish Source, the introduction of Christianity was much more important than Æthelberht’s accomplishments. However, Alfred needed a common history of success against a common enemy and so he chose to include more of Æthelberht’s career as well the Battle of Dyrham.
Could the events that are only found in the later histories have been in the originals? Of course, we cannot pretend to know all the author’s biases or interests. However, the known motivations were only present later and both histories had strong motivations for creation. This suggests that the materials were added. That is a revelation that will serve us well in trying to understand post-Roman history.
1 Dumville has been perhaps the most potent critic of the Northern Memorandum, while The Kentish Source’s historicity has never really been in doubt. Harrison has provided perhaps the best overview of the materials; Dumville, “On the North British Section of the Historia Brittonum”, WHR 8 (Cardiff, 1977c), 345-54; Harrison, The Framework of Anglo-Saxon England to 900 A.D., (Cambridge, 1976), 121-123.
2 It is conceivable and even probable that historians into the sixteenth century had access to the Northern Memorandum, but there is no linguistic or orthographic evidence of an early source in any of their works, only the tantalizing information they provide about the period.
3 Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 230-45.
4 Both sources give more northern information into the seventh century with the Battle of Nechtanesmere in the Historia Brittonum and Kentigern’s death in Annales Cambriae, but these were events of island-wide importance. They were probably recorded later because they are not found in both sources.
5 Lloyd, The History of Wales: from the earliest times to the Edwardian conquest, (Cardiff, 1912), 126 fn. 6; Chadwick and Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, (Cambridge, 1932), 155; Crawford, “Arthur and his Battles”, Antiq 9 (Gloucester, 1935), 279; Jackson, “The Arthur of History”, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, ed. Roger S. Loomis, (Chicago, 1959), 78; Bromwich, “Concepts of Arthur”, SC 10/11 (Cardiff, 1976), 169.
6 Praise poetry focuses praising the patron for his martial abilities and generosity. Most surviving examples give several vague references to battles and raids before speaking about how generous he is to both his men and his bard. None of the extant poems contain enough information in themselves to match what is in Historia Brittonum – the alliance, a named enemy, one location, an overall view of a campaign, and an assassination attempt. In fact, all of the surviving Taliesin poems do not give us as much historical information as is found in this Historia Brittonum chapter.
7 Dumville, “On the North British Section of the Historia Brittonum”, WHR 8 (Cardiff, 1977c), 345-354; Hughes, “The Welsh Latin Chronicles: Annales Cambriae and Related Texts”, PBA 59 (London, 1975), 233-258.
8 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 54-8.
9 We can be fairly confident that Oswiu at one point married Rieinmellth, granddaughter of Rhun and great-granddaughter of Urien himself.
10 Johnson, Evidence of Arthur, (Madison, 2014), 154-63.
11 The Gododdin of Aneirin, ed. and trans. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), cxxi-cxxiii.
12 The obvious choice would be Ecgfrith, victor of Nechtanesmere. However, if he did authorize the additions to the Northern Memorandum, why would he not have edited it a la Nennius? The events listed are important enough that they might have been added in at any Northumbrian monastery as a supplement to what was already in the Northern Memorandum.
13 As with the Northern Memorandum, later sources claimed access to older materials, but only these three sources demonstrate by word forms and other evidence that they could have accessed it.
14 Harrison, The Framework of Anglo-Saxon History, (Cambridge, 1976), 122-3.
15 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 77-9.
16 Wheeler, “Gildas’ de Excidio Britanniae, Chapter 26”, EHR 41 (London, 1926), 501-502; Brooks, “The creation and early structure of the kingdom of Kent”, The Origins of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, ed. Stephen Bassett, (Leicester, 1989), 67; Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014), 76.
17 Nicholas Brooks clearly favored Æthelberht’s reign but allowed for the possibility that it might have been written in 691-725, the last period of full Kentish independence; Brooks, Anglo-Saxon Myths: Church and State, 400-1066, (New York, 2003), 85.
18 Kirby, “Bede and Northumbrian Chronology”, EHR 78 (London, 1963), 514-527; Kirby, “Bede’s Native Sources for the Historia Ecclesiastica”, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 48 (London, 1965-1966), 341-371; Miller, “Bede’s Use of Gildas”, EHR 90 (London, 1975), 241-261; DeGregario, (ed.) Innovation and Tradition in the Writings of the Venerable Bede, (Morgantown, 2006); Brown, A Companion to Bede, (Woodbridge, 2009).
19 Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, (Baltimore, 1955), preface.
20 Turville-Petre, “Hengest and Horsa”, Saga-Book of the Viking Saga 14 (London, 1953-1957), 273-290; de Vries, “Die Ursprungssage der Sachsen”, Niedersächen Jarhbuch für Landesgeschichte 31 (Berlin, 1959), 30-32; Olrik, “Epic Laws of Folk Narrative”, International Folkloristics: classic contributions by the founders of folklore, ed. Alan Dundes, (Lanham, 1999), 104.
21 Turville-Petre, “Hengest and Horsa”, Saga-Book of the Viking Society 14 (London, 1953-1957), 287; Sims-Williams, “The settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle”, ASE 12 (London, 1983b), 22.
22 Charles-Edwards and others have also been careful to distinguish the historical figure of Gwrtheryn from The Kentish Source character of Vortigern. Charles Edwards, Wales and the Britons: 350-1064, (Oxford, 2013), 53; Brooks, “Canterbury, Rome and the Construction of English Identity”, Early Medieval Rome and the Christian West: essays in honour of Donald A. Bullough. ed. Julia M.H. Smith. (Boston, 2000a), 245-6; Brooks, Bede and the English. (Jarrow, 2000b); “The English Origin Myth”, Anglo-Saxon Myths: State and Church, (London, 2000c), 79-89.
23 Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, (Baltimore, 1955), 2.5.
24 Turville-Petre, “Hengest and Horsa”, Saga-Book of the Viking Saga 14 (London, 1953-1957), 273-290; de Vries, “Die Ursprungssage der Sachsen”, Niedersächen Jarhbuch für Landesgeschichte 31 (Berlin, 1959), 30-32; Olrik, “Epic Laws of Folk Narrative”, International Folkloristics: classic contributions by the founders of folklore, ed. Alan Dundes, (Lanham, 1999), 104.
25 Kirby, “Bede and Northumbrian Chronology”, EHR 78 (London, 1963), 514-527.
26 Miller, “Bede’s Use of Gildas”, EHR 90 (London, 1975a), 241-261.
27 Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, (Baltimore, 1955), 1.16.
28 Dumville, “ ‘Nennius’ and the Historia Brittonum”, SC 11 (Cardiff, 1976), 78-95.
29 Chadwick, “Early Culture and Learning in North Wales”, Studies in the Early British Church, ed. Nora K. Chadwick, (Cambridge, 1958), 29-34. As Higham more recently pointed out, this nationalist movement was only possible because of a period of Mercian instability.
30 Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain, (Madison, 2014).
31 Miller, “The Foundation Legend of Gwynedd in the Latin Texts”, BBCS 27 (Cardiff, 1978a), 515-532.
32 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), xxxv-xlii.
33 Phillimore, “The Annales Cambriae and Old-Welsh Genealogies from Harleian MS. 3859”, Y Cymmrodor 8 (Cardiff, 1888), 144.
34 Phillimore, “The Annales Cambriae and Old-Welsh Genealogies from Harleian MS. 3859”, Y Cymmrodor 8 (Cardiff, 1888), 144.
35 Hughes, “The Welsh Latin Chronicles: Annales Cambriae and Related Texts”, PBA 59 (London, 1975), 237.
36 Rowland has noted that, while Urien and his allies are entirely absent from the secular records, several of his literary enemies – Gwrgi and Peredur, Dunawt, and Cerdic son of Gwallawg are present. This has some very interesting implications. However, they are not relevant to the present discussion.
37 Hughes, “The Welsh Latin Chronicles: Annales Cambriae and Related Texts”, PBA 59 (London, 1975), 233-258.
38 Dumville, “Historia Brittonum: An Insular History from the Carolingian Age”, Historiographie im frühen Mittelalter, ed. Anton Scharer and Georg Scheibelreitr, (Munich, 1994), 406-34.
39 Davies, A History of Wales, (New York, 1994), 52 and 72.
40 Hodgkin, A History of the Anglo-Saxons, (Oxford, 1935); Plummer, Two of the Saxon Chronicles Parallel, vol. 2, (London, 1892-1899), civ.
41 Stenton, “The South-Western Element in the Old English Chronicle”, Essays in Medieval History presented to Thomas Frederick Tout, ed. A.G. Little and Sir Frederick Little, (Manchester, 1925), 15-24.
42 There is no evidence that Sussex may have had an origin story before The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and without the impetus of writing its own history there would have been no reason too. On the other hand it would have been simple enough to ignore the kingdom’s creation altogether or give it a foundation later than Wessex without insulting Sussex.
43 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates for the early rulers were still earlier than found in the West Saxon Regnal Table, however, so in that regard Wessex was still improving its claims. See Dumville, “The West Saxon genaeological regnal list and the chronology of early Wessex”, Peritia 4 (Galway, 1985), 21-66.
44 Kirby, “Problems of early West Saxon history”, EHR 80 (London, 1965), 10-29; Johnson, Hengest, Gwrtheyrn, and the Chronology of Post-Roman Britain,(Madison, 2014), 150-2.
45 Jackson, Language and History in Early Britain, (Edinburgh, 1953), 464-466 616-617, and 677; Sims-Williams, “The Settlement of England in Bede and the Chronicle”, ASE 12 (London, 1983b), 33-34.
46 The Gododdin of Aneirin, trans. and ed. John T. Koch, (Cardiff, 1997), cx-cxxvii.