Welsh Annals

The earliest surviving version of the Latin Annales Cambriae (Annals of Wales) is found in Harleian MS 3859. The annals, immediately followed by a set of Welsh royal genealogies, are interpolated into a version of the Historia Brittonum. The manuscript itself dates from c.1100 (the corruption of Welsh names and words suggests that it was not produced in Wales), but the last entry in the annals corresponds to the year 954. The genealogies begin with Owain ap [son of] Hywel Dda (Hywel died in 950, and Owain in 988), who ruled in South Wales (Deheubarth), and it is likely that both the annals and the genealogies belong to Owain’s time.

The first page of annals in Harleian MS 3859.[*]

The origins of the Annales Cambriae appear to lie in St Davids (Mynyw), Dyfed. It seems that from around 800 contemporary records were kept at St Davids, but for earlier entries other sources were used – predominantly Irish and North British. The first entry corresponds to the year 453. The word ‘corresponds’ is used because these terse annals do not actually quote dates. The sporadic entries are made on a framework of years – each year marked only by an’ (short for annus). Every tenth year is additionally identified with a Roman numeral (though some decades have nine years, some eleven). Although the first entry corresponds to 453, the framework begins at the equivalent of 445, and, although the last entry corresponds to 954, the framework extends to the equivalent of 977.[*] The significance of the start date is not clear, but it seems that the framework is based on the Easter cycle of 532 years. The Harleian MS 3859 version is the A-text of the Annales Cambriae. The B-text and C-text exist in late-13th century manuscripts.

The B-text was written, probably at the Cistercian abbey of Neath, on the flyleaves of an abbreviated edition of the Domesday Book (National Archives MS E.164/1). The text begins with a world-history section, ultimately derived from the work of Isidore of Seville (d.636). The framework of years – each year marked by anus (sic), with no separate indication of decades – begins with Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain,[*] though the Isidoran contribution continues up to the reign of Emperor Leo I (457–73). There are a few entries taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth, but there are also a few seemingly genuine entries not found in the A-text.[*] From 1097 until the final entry, in 1286, Anno Domini dates are attached to the annals.

The C-text (British Library MS Cotton Domitian A i) was produced at St Davids. It too begins with an Isidoran section, with British references inserted, which continues to the reign of Emperor Heraclius (610–41). Thereafter, the framework of years – each year marked by annus, with no separate indication of decades – emerges, and continues to the equivalent of 1289 (the last entry actually appears against the previous annus – corresponding to 1288). The influence of the imaginative pen of Geoffrey of Monmouth is apparent up to 734.[*]

The A-text is, by almost two centuries, the most ancient surviving version of the Annales Cambriae, but it was not used as a source by the B-text or the C-text. Up until 1202 (after which point they diverge), the B-text and C-text seem to be developments of a St Davids text that had been independently derived from an ancestor of the A-text.[*]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the frameworks of the three texts do not stay in register with each other, and none of them stays in register with a chronological framework derived from external sources. As a result, deducing accurate dates from the Annales Cambriae is something of an inexact science.

A related source is the Brut y Tywysogion (Chronicle of the Princes), which exists in several manuscripts that, basically, represent three Welsh language versions of a lost original Latin text that was compiled, probably at the Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida, in the late-13th century. Based on the Annales Cambriae, but with additional material, this Latin text was apparently conceived as a continuation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae. One version of the Brut y Tywysogion is known after, its representative, the Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Jesus College MS 111). Another after Peniarth MS 20. In the third version, though, the Welsh material is combined with material from English sources, and this is independently titled Brenhinedd y Saesson (Kings of the Saxons).

Julius Caesar campaigned in Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC (see Caesar’s Expeditions). However, Bede, in a chronological summary at the end of his Ecclesiastical History, wrongly states:
In the sixtieth year before the incarnation of the Lord, Gaius Julius Caesar was the first Roman to make war on Britain.
Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum V, 24
The B-text’s entry quotes Bede’s date.
In a Sir John Rhŷs Memorial Lecture from 1973, titled ‘The Welsh Latin Chronicles: Annales Cambriae and Related Texts’ (published in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 59, freely available online), Kathleen Hughes says:
Though he [the writer of the B-text] includes a few entries from Geoffrey, after Pope Leo’s change of the date of Easter [which is the first entry in the A-text, equating to 453] his text is closely similar to that of the Harleian text [i.e. the A-text]. He gives a few entries not in the Harleian text which look as if they may be genuine early entries and has some better readings than the Harleian manuscript …
Kathleen Hughes (‘The Welsh Latin Chronicles: Annales Cambriae and Related Texts’):
The Cottonian annalist [i.e. the author of the C-text] was using a text closely akin to the Harleian annals [the A-text], but down to 689 he has rewritten it according to Geoffrey of Monmouth… The Cottonian annals [the C-text] down to 689 are valueless as history, but they show the enormous influence of Geoffrey not only on romance but on historical writing.
In fact, Geoffrey’s influence on the C-text continues beyond 689, to 734.
Another late-13th century manuscript (Exeter Cathedral MS 3514) contains two other texts. The first of these (E), known as the Chronica de Wallia, only covers the years 1190–1266. The second text (D) swiftly deals with the period 1132 BC–AD 1285. Neither is relevant to this website.
In fact, the first few words on the page (show in red) belong to the outgoing passage of the Historia Brittonum.
Harleian MS 3859 is in the British Library, London.
The first entry states: “Easter altered on the Lord’s Day by Pope Leo, bishop of Rome.”  This must refer to a dispute concerning the date of Easter 455, that first becomes apparent in a letter of Pope Leo I (‘the Great’) dated 24th June 451 (Letter 88). There was a difference in the date reckoned at Rome and that reckoned at Alexandria. On 15th June 453 Leo wrote to the emperor Marcian, urging him to have the matter investigated (Letter 121). The upshot was that Leo was informed that the Roman date was wrong, and on July 28th 454 he wrote to the bishops of Gaul and Spain telling them that Easter 455 would be 24th April, the Alexandrian date (letter 138). The almost universally adopted convention is that the first entry in the Annales Cambriae equates to 453, in which year Leo instigated the official investigation. There are always dissident voices of course, and in this case some writers (notably Leslie Alcock: Arthur’s Britain, 1971) choose to equate the first entry with 455. However, a better fit with dates from other sources is obtained if the conventional year, 453, is adopted.