The Battle of Agned

The Battle of Agned

The Battle of Agned was said to have been Arthur’s eleventh battle against the Saxons. It is a particularly interesting battle, because different versions of the Historia Brittonum contain different information about it. It is also the only one of the twelve battles, apart from Badon, that may have independent support for its historicity. Let’s take a look at what we can say about this violent engagement against the Saxons.

The EventsThe Battle of Agned

The first account in which Arthur’s battle of Agned explicitly appears is, like almost all of the other twelve battles, the passage dealing with Arthur in the Historia Brittonum. Here is what it has to say about it:

“The eleventh battle was on the hill called Agned.”

That is all the information we get from the Historia Brittonum. Other translations render ‘hill’ as ‘mountain’, which is likely more accurate. No more detail of any kind is provided, though the fact that it was a battle fought on a hill or mountain raises the possibility that a hill fort or fortress of some kind was involved, similar to how the Battle of Mount Badon evidently involved a hill fort (Gildas refers to the battle as a ‘siege’).

What we can also say about the battle is that the Britons were victorious, as they allegedly were in all twelve of the battles that the Historia Brittonum refers to. The following battle was Badon, the one which really put a stop to the Saxon invasion for a generation or two. Thus, although the battle of Agned was apparently a British victory, it was evidently not such a crushing or humiliating defeat that the Saxons had no choice but to stop their advance after that. Rather, they evidently continued on to fight at Badon.

Other than this, no early accounts can provide us with any additional details about the site or what took place there.

What Does ‘Agned’ Mean?

Discovering the location of this battle site might seem simple enough. Just find a mountain in the British Isles with the name ‘Agned’. The problem is that there is no such mountain or hill in Britain. Agned has proved to be just as elusive as the infamous third battle site, ‘Bassas’. Because researchers have been unable to find a place with the name ‘Agned’, they have endeavoured to find a place name that at least matches the etymology of ‘Agned’.

Unfortunately, scholars are unable even to agree on an origin for this place name. One theory is that the original form of the name was ‘Angned’. However, this is not very convincing nor useful because this ‘original form’ is itself an unknown word. It has also not enabled scholars to determine the true location of the site.

Another suggestion is that the word ‘Agned’ comes from ‘ochenaid’, a Welsh word meaning ‘sigh’. This is not a particularly satisfying etymology, hence why it has not been widely accepted. However, it would tie in with one popular identification for the site, which we will come to shortly.

A different suggestion that has been made is that the word comes from the Latin ‘agnitio’, meaning ‘understanding’. However, it is extremely unlikely that a mountain in Britain would be named after this Latin word. The overwhelming majority of place names in Britain in this era had a Celtic origin. Therefore, this etymology is not very convincing.

Perhaps the simplest and most convincing origin for ‘Agned’ is that it is a scribal corruption. It was quite common for scribes to confuse the letters ‘n’ and ‘u’, there being numerous examples of this in medieval British manuscripts. So perhaps ‘Agned’ was originally ‘Agued’. Unlike the other proposed original form, ‘Angned’, this suggested original form is known to have actually been a word, albeit a rare one. The meaning of the word ‘agued’ is something along the lines of ‘adversity’.

This is a convincing etymology, but it does not directly reveal the location of this battle site, because researchers have still found it difficult to convincingly match this word with any known place name in Britain. Nonetheless, the meaning does fit in with one of the most commonly proposed sites, which we will now go on to see, along with other suggested sites.

The Location of Agned

The most commonly referred to location that we have already referred to twice in the previous section is Edinburgh. This appears to have been the earliest identification made in surviving literature. The identification is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae. It does not, however, appear in the context of Arthur’s battles. In fact, Geoffrey does not seem to make any reference to the Battle of Agned (this is not the only battle he excludes from his account, so this does not appear to have any significance regarding the historicity of the battle).

Earlier in Geoffrey’s HRB, he described how a king named Ebrauc founded the settlements of Kaerebrauc, Alclud and Mynydd (or ‘Mount’) Agned. Mynydd Agned is then identified as the site on which the ‘Castle of the Maidens’ stood, known as the Dolorous Mountain. This is believed to be a reference to Edinburgh Castle, which was alternatively known as ‘Maidens’ Castle’ until at least the 16th century.

The claim that Mount Agned was also known as the ‘Dolorous Mountain’ fits two of the suggested etymologies for ‘Agned’ discussed earlier. One of these is the ‘ochenaid’ suggestion. This word means ‘sigh’, which has a vague similarity to the concept conveyed by ‘dolorous’. However, the connection between the two concepts is not that strong, nor is the idea that ‘Agned’ could come from ‘ochenaid’.

A much better etymology is the suggestion that ‘Agned’ was originally ‘Agued’. Meaning ‘adversity’, this word is a very good fit for the meaning of ‘dolorous’, and the development from the word ‘agued’ to ‘Agned’ works perfectly too. So, Geoffrey’s claim that Mount Agned was also known as the Dolorous Mountain is very logical and convincing.

There are some reasons for accepting the identification of Agned with Edinburgh. For one thing, the idea that Arthur had a significant presence at Edinburgh is supported by the fact that the peak of the mountain on which the ancient fortress is located is known as Arthur’s Seat.

One very significant fact that has a bearing on the issue is a detail found in Pa Gur, a Welsh poem which happens to be one of the oldest Arthurian sources – almost as old as the Historia Brittonum, in fact. It refers to Arthur fighting his enemies at ‘Dun Eidyn’, which is the Welsh name for Edinburgh. Thus, here is a very early source which explicitly places Arthur as fighting at Edinburgh.

Surely this confirms that Arthur’s battle of Agned took place at Edinburgh? After all, none of the other battles in the Historia Brittonum can be identified with Edinburgh. In reality, the situation is unfortunately more complicated than that.

Breguoin

In a 10th century manuscript of the Historia Brittonum, the word ‘Agned’ does not appear. Rather, the eleventh battle is said to have taken place on a mountain called ‘Breguoin’. The full line also states that it was known to the British as ‘Cat Bregoin’, meaning ‘the battle of Breguoin’. Later manuscript versions have some different spellings of the name, such as ‘Bregomion’.

This alternative name for Agned has opened the way for researchers to investigate a whole other corpus of British place names – those which are similar to ‘Breguoin’.

One suggestion is that this place name is a corruption of ‘Bravonium’. This was one form of the name of the Roman fort at what is now Leintwardine in Herefordshire. Part of the appeal of this location is that it is reasonably close to some of the most popular and convincing locations for Badon. Since the battle of Agned (or Breguoin) was the battle just before Badon, it might be reasonable to argue that they were likely in the same vicinity.

Or, at least, it may be the case that Breguoin was on the way from the tenth battle to the twelfth battle. Given that the tenth battle is often placed by researchers in the north of Britain, Leintwardine (Bravonium) would indeed be on the route from the north down to Badon (perhaps Bath, Badbury Rings, or a location in south east Wales such as Mynydd Baedan).

However, the plausibility of ‘Bravonium’ developing into ‘Breguoin’ has been questioned by scholars. The Roman name would more naturally develop into ‘Breguein’ rather than ‘Breguoin’.

Another version of the Historia Brittonum actually specifies that it is in Somersetshire, and is known as Cathbregion. A location in Somerset would certainly tie in with the battle being close to the final battle. This manuscript gloss does not help an awful lot, though, because ‘Cathbregion’ itself is unknown on modern maps of Somerset. However, some researchers have identified it with a place now known as Catbrain near Bristol.

The problem with this identification is that ‘Cat’s Brain’ is a fairly common name for fields in the south of England, depending on the texture and appearance of the soil. There does not appear to be any record that the name previously was more similar to ‘Cathbregion’. Furthermore, Catbrain is outside of Somerset.

Traditionally speaking, the reference to a Cathbregion in Somerset has been widely assumed to be a reference to Cadbury. However, this is hardly convincing, for the ‘bury’ element came from the Anglo-Saxon ‘buryg’, which is clearly unrelated to ‘bregion’ or ‘breguoin’. Yet, the elements may have been similar enough to fool writers hundreds of years ago, and it thus may be that the reference to Cathbregion in Somerset was merely based on a mistaken association with Cadbury.

There is one identification which scholars now overwhelmingly support. It has been shown that the word ‘Breguoin’ is a perfect linguistic match for ‘Brewyn’, a place name that appears in Welsh poetry. That place name in the poem in which it appears, both on linguistic and contextual grounds, has been firmly identified with Bremenium, the Roman fortress at what is now High Rochester, Northumberland.

The case for Brewyn being Bremenium seems as certain as can be, and the equation of Breguoin with Brewyn also appears to be without criticism. Thus, the identification of the Arthurian Breguoin with the Roman fortress of Bremenium should be accepted, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.

Problems with Bremenium

But how can this be reconciled with the place name ‘Agned’? And we not only have to reconcile that place name with Bremenium, but we also have to address the apparent match between Agned and Edinburgh.

Recall that Geoffrey of Monmouth identified Mount Agned with the Dolorous Mountain, with the Castle of the Maidens situated on the top. The reference to the Castle of the Maidens clearly identifies the intended site as Edinburgh. We also saw that the most likely etymology for ‘Mount Agned’ matches the meaning of ‘Dolorous Mountain’.

Could it be the case that Geoffrey of Monmouth mistakenly identified Agned with Edinburgh? It is possible, but then how could we explain the similarity between ‘Agned’ and ‘Dolorous Mountain’? There is no evidence that anyone understood the meaning of ‘Agned’ in Geoffrey’s time. The (probably) original spelling ‘Agued’ had apparently been lost since at least the ninth century. There is no reason to believe that Geoffrey could have made the connection himself and thus produced a fictional alternative name for the mountain that matched the meaning of the original.

This strongly suggests that Geoffrey of Monmouth had accurate information in his hands. If this was the case, then should we really dismiss his identification of Agned with Edinburgh? In addition, as we saw before, there is the direct reference to Arthur fighting at Dun Eidyn, or Edinburgh, in one of the earliest Arthurian sources. It certainly does not seem that Edinburgh as the site of one of Arthur’s twelve battles can just be dismissed out of hand in favour of Bremenium.

Here is one possibility which harmonises as much of the evidence as possible. It may be significant to note that the Pa Gur does not specifically describe Arthur as fighting against the Anglo-Saxons at Dun Eidyn. It simply states that he contended against ‘Cynvyn’. This is a British name, which makes it unlikely that his enemies on that occasion were the Anglo-Saxons (unless this was a case similar to Cerdic of Wessex, where the name might be evidence of intermarrying between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons).

Geoffrey’s HRB claims that Arthur fought many battles against the inhabitants of northern Britain. Thus, it may be that this battle of Arthur at Dun Eidyn (along with some of the other battles in Pa Gur, which may likewise be locations in the north of Britain) was part of his northern campaign described by Geoffrey.

Perhaps, then, the author of the Historia Brittonum had a record of Arthur fighting this battle of Dun Eidyn, though in his record it was called Agned. Somehow, he mistook this battle at Agned/Dun Eidyn for Arthur’s actual battle against the Anglo-Saxons at Breguoin (Bremenium), thus misnaming it ‘Agned’ in his battle list. On the other hand, other versions of the Historia Brittonum preserved the accurate name of the place.

This scenario accommodates the evidence supporting Geoffrey’s identification of Agned with Edinburgh, along with Arthur’s association with that site and his alleged battle there, while also accommodating the evidence for Breguoin being Bremenium.

But the big question that remains is, how could anyone get confused between Agned and Breguoin? The names are not similar at all. The answer may be revealed by a Roman inscription found at Bremenium. It records a reference to a man named Egnatius Lucilianus, who was the governor of Britannia Inferior (northern Britain) in the mid-third century. The stone inscription records the fact that Egnatius ‘set this up’.

It may be the case that the fort was locally known as ‘the fort of Egnatius’ in recognition of his role in restoring the fort. Or the area in general may have been known as ‘the hill of Egnatius’. It need not matter whether it was ever known by this name officially, but simply if it was known by that name among literary sources or local traditions. By the medieval era, when the Historia Brittonum was written, the name ‘Egnatius’ would have developed into something very similar (though not necessarily identical) to ‘Agned’.

Although not necessarily the strongest of cases, this would nicely explain how the writer of the Historia Brittonum could have confused Arthur’s battle of Agned with his battle of Breguoin.

Taken From Urien?

One major issue with this battle is related to the fact mentioned earlier, that ‘Breguoin’ matches ‘Brewyn’. The particular poem that this place name is found in is a poem dedicated to Urien, the king of Rheged. Brewyn itself is mentioned as being the location of a battle fought by that king.

On this basis, numerous scholars have concluded that this battle was taken from a record of Urien’s battles and attributed to Arthur. In fact, for those who identify Breguoin with Bremenium, it is generally taken as a given that this is what happened. Yet there are two obvious alternative conclusions that researchers in general have apparently ignored.

Firstly, it is perfectly possible for more than one battle to happen at any given location. There are numerous examples of this throughout history and throughout the world. For example, Megiddo in Israel was the site of a number of different battles throughout Biblical history. In India, there were three ‘battles of Panipat’, the first taking place in 1526 and the last taking place in 1761. And in British history, there have been two ‘battles of Brentford’.

The idea that only one battle can happen at any given location is ludicrous. In fact, in some ways, the fact that a battle occurred once at a location makes it reasonable to believe that a battle may have occurred there following that, since battle sites are usually strategic. Thus, the idea that Arthur’s battle of Breguoin must have been taken from records of Urien’s battle at that same location is a fundamentally flawed, baseless theory.

There is another obvious solution to this supposed problem that has been overlooked. The Historia Brittonum does not state that Arthur fought the Anglo-Saxons by himself. It states that he did so while leading ‘all the kings of Britain’. Later records consistently portray Urien as one of Arthur’s allied kings. It could very, very easily be the case that Urien’s battle at Brewyn was actually identical to Arthur’s battle of Breguoin. In other words, Urien was one of the kings participating in the battle under Arthur’s leadership.

If the poem about Urien was dedicated to this battle, providing many details about the course of the battle and the events that went on there but without any reference to Arthur, then one could see how it might be reasonable to conclude that this was not a battle lead by Arthur. However, that is not the case. The poem summarises many parts of Urien’s career, and it simply mentions Brewyn in one line. We would not expect to see any reference to Arthur (or any other king who may have been involved) here. It therefore most certainly could be a reference to the Arthurian battle of Breguoin.

Of course, this relies on accepting Urien and Arthur as contemporaries, which the majority of scholars and researchers do not. But even if this is rejected, the first alternative conclusion (that there were simply two separate battles that occurred in the same place) is still valid.

Conclusion

We have seen that Arthur’s eleventh battle is a particularly interesting one, because of the conflicting information given about it in the available sources. One thing that the sources do agree on is that it was a battle fought between the British kings, lead by Arthur, and the Anglo-Saxons. It was a victory for the Britons, though the Saxons were not defeated so severely that they could not go on to fight at the climactic battle of Badon.

What we have also seen is that the etymology for the place name ‘Agned’ has proved very difficult for scholars, though the most likely origin is the word ‘agued’, meaning ‘adversity’. This ties in nicely with Geoffrey’s claim that it was also known as the Dolorous Mountain. We have also seen that this, along with some other evidence, suggests that identifying Agned with Edinburgh is a reasonable conclusion.

Yet the sources also give the name ‘Breguoin’ for Arthur’s eleventh battle, and it has been shown that this was almost certainly the Roman fort of Bremenium. The reason why the two locations do not match may well be because Arthur fought a battle against the inhabitants of northern Britain during his battle at Agned (Edinburgh), which battle was then confused for his battle against the Saxons at Breguoin. It is possible that this confusion arose due to Breguoin also being known by a name given to it in memory of the governor of northern Britain who had some work performed on Bremenium, Egnatius Lucilianus.

Finally, despite the fact that most scholars believe that this battle was taken from a record of Urien’s battles, we have seen that such a conclusion is without any basis, and there is, in reality, no reason to question the historicity of Arthur’s eleventh battle.

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