Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Four Ancient Books of Wales

by Richard Denning

As a writer of historical fiction set in the late 6th and early 7th century I am constantly faced with a lack of documentation. I have in the past discussed the surviving historical documentation for this era  (Gildas: On the Ruin of Britain, Nennius: The History of the Britons, Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Annales Cumbriae and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles) Taken as a whole they give us an idea of what went on between the end of Roman Britain and the creation of the Kingdom of England some five centuries later but there are vast gaps and few tangible facts.

Turning to what went on in the evolving Welsh Kingdoms there are so many gaps that we have to look to poetry to fill in some holes. The Four Ancient Books of Wales is a term coined by William Forbes Skeen (a Victorian historian and Antiquarian) to describe four surviving medieval manuscripts. These documents are written in Welsh and themselves date from the 13th to 15th centuries but contain texts some of which originate from as far back as the early as the sixth and seventh centuries.  So what we have are copies of earlier writings some of which date back to this post Roman period.  What is also fascinating is that they also contain some of the earliest references to a King Arthur and to a Merlin.

The four books included by Skene in his list are:
1)The Black Book of Carmarthen

This book is believed to be the earliest surviving manuscript written in Welsh as opposed to Latin. The Britons at the time the Romans left spoke a Celtic language called Brythonic. Out of these evolved the language we now know as Old Welsh. This book then shows the first poems written in this new language.

The book gets its name because it had a black binding and was probably created in the priory at Camarthen in the early 13th century from older possibly 9th century poetry.  Along with the other books many of the poems contains themes of praise and mourning but from a historical point of view there are references to Welsh Heroes of the 6th to 9th century. So we get snippets about battles in Cumbria and battles in which an Arthur and a Merlin participated.

2)The Book of Aneirin

This a late 13th century book written in Welsh and attributed to the late 6th century poet, Aneirin. The manuscript itself dates from around 1265, but is probably a copy of a lost 9th century original. This in turn was probably written down from the original poems composed by Aneirin three hundred years earlier and passed on as oral tradition.

Aneirin was present at and wrote his most famous poem about the Battle of Catraeth which was fought circa 595 to 600 AD between the Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons and the Northern British. It was a disaster for the British and so the poem, Y Gododdin is an eulogy for his fallen comrades. It remains the chief source we have for this battle. Here is an exerpt:

Men went to Catraeth at morn
Their high spirits lessened their life-span
They drank mead, gold and sweet, ensnaring;
For a year the minstrels were merry.
Red their swords, let the blades remain
Uncleansed, white shields and four-sided spearheads,
Before Mynyddog Mwynfawr's men.

3)The Red Book of Hergest

This manuscript was written shortly after 1382. It is bound in red leather and for a couple of centuries resided  at Hergest hence the name. Within this large volume is the heart of ancient Welsh poetry and prose including the Mabinogion  (a collection of early Welsh stories and lore) and a set of peculiarly Welsh lists called Triads. These are an odd collection of sets of three things such as:

Three Great Queens of Arthur:
Gwennhwyfar daughter of Cywryd Gwent, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gwythyr son of Greidiawl, and Gwenhwyfar daughter of Gogfran the Giant.

Three Noble Retinues of the Island of Britain:
The Retinue of Mynyddawg at Catraeth, and the Retinue of Dreon the Brave at the Dyke of Arfderydd, and the third, the Retinue of Belyn of Llyn in  Erethlyn in Rhos.

Now these lists don’t tell us much but they give us names and places that may be of use. When the history is so sparse just knowing there was a chap called Belyn from Llyn who took his retinue to Rhos (where other references suggest a battle occurred between the Welsh and Northumbrians in the 620’s now gives us something.)

Did you notice the mention in this triad of Mynyddawg at Catraeth  - who is also referred to in that quote from Aneirin in Y Goddodin. These poems then are more than just stiring verse. In many cases they are history retold. The trick of course is working out what is myth and what is history.

4)The Book of Taliesin

This dates from the first half of the 14th century. It contains poems from different authors –some from the 10th century and some much older. Many of them represent the very oldest poems that were composed in Welsh including those attributed to Taliesen who was active in the mid to late 6th century and composed in Brythonic the precursor to Old Welsh. Taliesen was a prolific writer on the “Old North” - the Post Roman world that was clashing with the new world of the Angles and Saxons.

In the morning of Saturday there was a great battle,
From when the sun rose until it gained its height.
Flamdwyn hastened in four hosts
Godeu and Reged to overwhelm.
They extended from Argoed to Arvynyd.
They retained not life during one day.
Flaindwyn called out again, of great impetuosity,
Will they give hostages? are they ready?
Owain answered, Let the gashing appear,
They will not give, they are not, they are not ready.
And Ceneu, son of Coel, would be an irritated lion
Before he would give a hostage to any one.
Urien called out again, the lord of the cultivated region,
If there be a meeting for kindred,
Let us raise a banner above the mountain,
And advance our persons over the border.
And let us misc our spears over the heads of men,
And rush upon Flamdwyn in his army,
And slaughter with him and his followers.
And because of the affair of Argoed Llwyfain,
There was many a corpse.
The ravens were red from the warring of men.
And the common people hurried with time tidings.
And I will divine the year that I am not increasing.
And until I fail in old age,
In the sore necessity of death,
May I not be smiling,
If I praise not Urien.

Taliesen gives us much of what we know about the battles between the Northumbrians (here under Flamebrand – a nickname for the Northumbrian king invading the Cumbrian lands of Rheged.) and the Britons. We get mentions of Owain and Urien  and other great British leaders like Coel (old King Cole of the nursery rhyme). It is also the main reference for the battle of Argoed Llwyfain – apparently fought on a Saturday morning according to this poem.

So these Four Ancient Books of Wales  are priceless. Yes they are mostly poems and semi myth. Indeed they are confusing and difficult to read but for the historian and for the historical fiction writer of the post Roman period for whom the expression “beggars can’t be choosers” might have been invented they give us something to get our teeth into and extract something approaching a history from.


Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord.

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  1. How fantastic Richard! I love this! Thank you for writing about these beautiful books

  2. A great resource, Richard! The problem of course is that the few written accounts tend to concentrate on the deeds of individuals - quite reasonably! We know so little about how ordinary folk lived. Marrying the recent archaeology with such written sources is the great challenge for us now.

  3. Striking similarity to the style of the Iliad actually. It must be something about legends of battles lost and won retold orally over centuries before being written down.


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