Great Britain

Map of Britain

Britain or Great Britain is a name used in various Arthurian texts 1.) for the island of Great Britain, 2.) for a kingdom approximately co-terminous with the Roman province of Britain, 3.) as an approximate synonym for England, 3.) and for the kingdom of Brittany in western Gaul.

Origins of the NameEdit

Historical SpeculationEdit

Britain was visited and described by the Greek traveler Pytheas from whose material Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, Ptolemy and others refer to the Pretanic Isles, in inhabited by the Pretani. In Old Welsh this is Priten. The corresponding form in Q-Celtic (Irish) is Cruithin which Irish writers use to refer to the people known in Latin as the Picti (‘Picts’, ‘Painted Ones’). The older Latin name was likewise Pretania.

Julius Caesar seems to have been responsible for introducing into Latin the forms Britanni for the island’s people and Britannia for the island, perhaps influenced by forms that the names took in the dialect of the Belgic Britons.

The etymology of the name is unknown.

Legendary SourcesEdit

The Britons are Named From BrutusEdit

The Historia Britonum traces the name to one Brutus. Three versions are here given of Brutus’ origins.

In the first tale, Brutus was a descendant of Silvius Posthumus, a son whom Lavinia bore to Aeneas after Aeneas’ death. Brutus was consul when he first conquered Spain and reduced it to a Roman province. Brutus then conquered Britain which he named after himself.

The second version relates that Ascanius, the son whom Aeneas brought from Troy, was the father of Brutus who killed both his mother and father. For his mother died in giving birth to Brutus and Brutus killed his father Ascanius with an arrow by accident, for which reason Brutus was exiled. Brutus came to the islands of the Tyrrhene sea, but was exiled again by the people there, because he was grandson of Aeneas who had killed Turnus. Finally Brutus came to Britain which he named after himself.

The third version names Brutus as the son of Silvius, son of Ascanius, son of Aeneas. Silvius is here the father of two sons: Posthumus, from whom the Kings of Alba Longa descend, and Brutus, from whom the Britons descend.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae adopts the third origin, but also tells the story of how Brutus killed his father and mother, and was driven into exile.

The Britons Descend from Brutus son of IstaevoneEdit

Tacitus in his Germania states (as translated by Thomas Gordon):

In their old ballads (which amongst them are the only sort of registers and history) they celebrate Tuisto, a God sprung from the earth, and Mannus his son, as the fathers and founders of the nation. To Mannus they assign three sons, after whose names so many people are called; the Ingaevones, dwelling next the ocean; the Herminones, in the middle country; and all the rest, Istaevones. Some, borrowing a warrant from the darkness of antiquity, maintain that the God had more sons, that thence came more denominations of people, the Marsians, Gambrians, Suevians, and Vandalians, and that these are the names truly genuine and original.

A document traditionally (but incorrectly) known as The Frankish Table of Nations lists descendants of the three sons of Mannus. This is found in various versions in which Mannus is corrupted to Alanus, possibly because the author knew of the people called the Alans. A version of this table appears in the Historia Brittonum. It reads, with some corrections made in the English translation to more accurate, original forms or to better known forms

Aliud experimentum inveni de isto Bruto ex veteribus libris veterum nostrorum. tres filii Noe diviserunt orbem in tres partes post diluvium. Sem in Asia, Cham in Africa, Iafeth in Europa dilataverunt terminos suos. I have learned another account of this Brutus from the ancient books of our ancestors. The three sons of Noah, after the deluge, severally occupied three different parts of the earth: Shem in Asia, Ham in Africa, and Japheth in Europe extended his borders.
Primus homo venit ad Europam de genere Iafeth Alanus cum tribus filius suis, quorum nomina sunt Hessitio, Armeno, Negue. The first man who came to dwell in Europe was Mannus, with his three sons, Istaevone, Herminone, and Yngaevone.
Hessitio autem habuit filios quatuor: hi sunt Franeus, Romanus, Britto, Albanus. Istaevone had four sons, Francus, Romanus, Brutus, and Alemanus.(Alemanus has here been restored in the translation from continental versions in place of Albanus/Albinus. Albinus also appears instead of Alemanus in the Irish Lebor Gebala where he is said to have taken Albania, with his children, and given his name to Alba [an old Irish name for Britain] and to have driven his brother across the Sea of Icht, and to have given his name to the Albanians of Latium in Italy.)
Armenon autem habuit quinque filios: Gothus, Valagothus, Gebidus, Burgundus, Langobardus. Herminone had five sons: Gothus, Valagothus, Gepidus, Burgundus, and Longobardus.(Valagothus seems to stand for ‘Welsh-Goth’, ‘Wala-/Vala-’ being used in Germanic languages to refer to all those whose native tongue was Latin or British. The Valagoths would be the Goths of Septamania and Spain who had adopted Latin.
Negue autem habuit tres filios: Vandalus, Saxo, Bogarus. Yngaevone had three sons: Vandalus, Saxo, and Bavarus.
ab Histione autem ortae sunt quattuor gentes: Franci, Latini, Albini et Britti. From Istaevone arose four nations: the Franks, the Latins, the Alemans (Germans), and Britons. (In the translation Alemans has been substituted for Albini following continental versions. The Albini would be the Picts.)
ab Armenone autem quinque: Gothi, Valagothi, Gebidi, Burgundi, Longobardi. From Herminone: the Goths, Valagoths, Gepids, Burgundians, and Lombards.
ab Neguio vero quattuor Boguarii, Vandali, Saxones et Turingi. From Yngaevone: the Bavarians, Vandals, Saxons, and Thuringians.
istae autem gentes subdivisae sunt per totam Europam. The whole of Europe was subdivided into these tribes.
Alanus autem, ut auint, filius, fuit Fetebir, Mannus is said to have been the son of Fetebir,
filii Ougomun, son of Ougomun, (The name Agnomain occurs in various locations in the genealogies of the Irish Lebor Gabala, in some cases as the son or grandson of Tat.)
filii Thoi, son of Thoi, (From this point the genealogy follows the lineage of Gaidel Glas in the later Lebor Gabala, the line there being: Gaidel Glas, Nel, Fenius Farsaid, Eogan, Glunfhind, Lamfhind, Etheor, Thoe, Bodb, Sem, Mar, Aurthact, Aboth, Ara, Iara, Sru, Esru, Baath, Rifath Scot [this last being the Biblical Riphath of Gen. 10.3, Riphath there being son of Gomer, son of Japheth, son of Noah].)
filii Boib, son of Boib,
filii Simeon, son of Simeon,
filii Mair, son of Mair,
filii Ethach, son of Ethach, (The Lebor Gabala leaves Ethach out. See the note on Thoi, above.)
filii Aurthach, son of Aurthach,
filii Ecthet, son of Ecthet, (The Lebor Gabala leaves Ecthet out. See the note on Thoi, above.)
filii Oth, son of Oth, (See the note on Thoi, above, and the note on Abir, following.)
filii Abir, son of Abir, (The Lebor Gabala has “Aboth”. Either it has combined Abir and Oth or the Historia Brittonum version has created two persons from Aboth. See the note on Thoi, above.)
filii Ra, son of Ra, (Sera, son of Sru, son of Esru appears in contradictory genealogies in the Irish Lebor Gabala.)
filii Ezra, son of Ezra, (Sru, son of Esru appears in contradictory genealogies in the Irish Lebor Gabala.)
filii Izrau, son of Izrau, (Esru appears in contradictory genealogies in the Irish Lebor Gabala. There he is in one place son of Bimbend, son of Magog, and in another place is son of Braimant, son of Aithect, son of Magog, and given other fathers in other places.)
filii Baath, son of Baath, (Baath, son of Iobaath usually appears in genealogies in the Irish Lebor Gabala as Baath, son of Ibath, son of the Bilblical Gomer.)
filii Iobaath, son of Iobaath, (Iobaath, is called Ibath in the Lebor Gabala which identifies him with Rifapth Scot. In another place Ibath is son of Magog son of Noah and father of Alanius father of Airmen, Negua, and Isicon.)
filii Iovan, son of Javan, (Ionians, Greeks in Bible. Javan and all following names are from the Jewish/Christian Bible as in the genealogy in Genesis 10.)
filii Iafeth, son of Japheth,
filii Noe, son of Noah,
filii Lamech, son of Lamech,
filii Matusalae, son of Methuselah,
filii Enoch, son of Enoch,
filii Iareth, son of Jared,
filii Malalehel, son of Malalehel,
filii Cainan, son of Kenan,
filii Enos, son of Enosh,
filii Seth, son of Seth,
filii Adam, son of Adam,
filii dei vivi. son of the Living God.
hanc peritiam inveni ex traditione veterum. We have obtained this information from ancient tradition.

Qui incolae in primo fuerunt Brittanniae Brittones a Bruto.

The Britons in Britain were thus first called from Brutus.
Brutus filius Hisitionis Brutus was son of Istaevone,
Histion Alanci, Istaevone of Mannus,
Alanci filius Reae Silviae, Mannus son of Rhea Silvia, (Rhea Silvia bore Romulus and Remus to the god Mars in the common tradition. No source but this gives her any other children. And neither Romulus nor Remus are given children.)
Rea Silvia filia Numae Pampilii, Rhea Silvia daughter of Numa Pompilius, (Rhea Silvia in Roman traditions was daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a descendant of Ascanius. Numa Pompilius was another person entirely, elected to be the second King of Rome after Romulus vanished. The author appears to have inserted him in error for Numitor)
filii Ascanii, son of Ascanius,
filii Aeneae, son of Aeneas,
filii Anchisae, son of Anchises,
filii Troi, son of Troius, (In classical sources Anchises is son of Capys, son of Assaracus, son of Tros.)
filii Dardani, son of Dardanus, (In classical sources Tros is son of Erichthonius, son of Dardanus.)
filii Flise, son of Elishah, (The Latin form Flise is a corruption of the Biblical form Elishah. The Irish version of the Historia Brittonum makes Dardanus [Dardain] to be son of Iob [Jove], son of Sardain [Saturn], son of Ceil [Coelus ‘Sky’], son of Polloir [Tellus ‘Earth’], son of Zorastreis (Zoroaster), son of Mesraim (Egypt), son of Caim (Ham), son of Noe (Noah).
filii Iuvani, son of Javan,
filii Iafeth. son of Japheth.

Iafeth vero habuit septem filios.

Japheth indeed had seven sons:
primus Gomer, a quo Galli; first Gomer, from whom the Gauls;
secundus Magog, a quo Scythes et Gothos; second, Magog, from whom the Scythians and Goths;
tertius Madai, a quo Medos; third, Madai, from whom the Medes;
quartus Iuvan, a quo Graeci; fourth, Javan, from whom the Greeks;
quintus Tubal, a quo Hiberei et Hispani et Itali; fifth, Tubal, from whom the Iberians, Spanish, and Italians;
sextus Mosoch, a quo Cappadoces; sixth, Meshech, from whom the Cappadocians;
septimus Tiras, a quo Traces. seventh, Tiras, from whom the Thracians.
hi sunt filii Iafeth filii Noe filii Lamech. These are the sons of Japheth, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech.

Traditions of Prydein son of Aedd the GreatEdit

According to the medieval Welsh Names of the Island of Britain, Britain was originally named Clas Myrddin (‘Merlin’s Precinct’). After the island was seized and occupied, it was named Y Vel Ynys (‘The Island of Honey’). Only after it was conquered by Prydein son of Aedd the Great (Aedd Mawr), was it named Ynys Brydein (‘Island of Prydein’).

In some Welsh king lists based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Aedd Mawr and Prydein are inserted in place of Geoffrey’s Kinmarc, Gorboduc, and Porrex. The scholar Richard Vaughn left a note which refers to Aedd Mawr, Prince of Cornwall, and his son Prydein, who subdued the entire island which took its name from him. Vaughn places this conquest after the death of Porrex. The notice appears in Bromwich (2006, p. 484).

Great Britain and Little BritainEdit

In French and in most European languages, in common usage during the late medieval period, Britain and related words was used primarily to refer to Brittany, or Little Britain. Its use to refer to England or even to the island of Britain was somewhat archaic in common speech. Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae may be the first to use the term Britannia Major (‘Great Britain’) for the island of Britain to distinguish it from Britannia Minor (‘Little Britain’ or ‘Lesser Britain’) in France. In subsequent French literature the island of Britain is sometimes called “Bretaigne la Grant” as opposed to “Petite Bretaigne” or “Bretaigne la minor”. Where “Bretagne” occurs without modification, whether it refers to the island of Britain or to Brittany must be determined by context. Translations into English sometimes get this wrong.

Sometimes Great Britain, but never Little Britain, is called “Bretagne la Bloie”. “Bloie” now means “blue”, but seems to have also sometimes meant “green” in 12th and 13th century French, so a reference to Blue Britain brought to mind the greenness of the country compared to France.

Post-Medieval Official Use of Great BritainEdit

The first use of “Great Britain” in official documents, as opposed to literary use, is in a proposal for a marriage between Cecily the daughter of Edward IV of England, and James the son of James III of Scotland, which described it as “this Nobill Isle, callit Gret Britanee”. In 1604, King James VI and I, proclaimed his assumption of the throne in the style "King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland ...”. The Act of Union of 1707, states that England and Scotland shall “be united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain”, making official what had hitherto been informal usage.

Welsh Use of PrydeinEdit

Prydein is the Welsh name for Britain, usually appearing as Ynys Prydein or Ynys Brydein meaning Island of Britain. When used without the initial “Ynys”, it usually refers to the territories of the British south of the land of the Picts and south of the lands of the Scots. That is, it refers to the countries of England and Wales. The northern regions of the island are called Prydyn, apparently in origin a version of the same name. Prydain is very rarely used for Little Britain in Welsh, which almost always used Llydaw as the name of the region. Accordingly a distinction between Great Prydein and Little Prydein is not needed.

Vagueness in Some Arthurian TextsEdit

What is covered by the name Britain for Arthur’s kingdom remains somewhat vague in the texts. For example, in the Prose Tristan, Britain appears to be separate from Cornwall. People travel from Britain to Cornwall and from Cornwall to Britain.

Some Name VariationsEdit


FRENCH: Bretaigne, Bartaigne, Bertaigne, Bertaingne, Bretagne, Bretaige, Bretaing(g)ne, Bretrangne, Bretaygne, Bretei(n)gne; LATIN: Britannia; ENGLISH: Bruttene, Brutene, Brutaine, Bruttene, Brutene, Brutten, Bruttaine, Brutaine, Bruttaine, Brutlonde, Brutlond Brutlond, Britayne, Brutlodes, Bretayne, Bretayne, Bretaigne, Bretayn, Breteyn, Breteine, Bretein, Breotayne, Breteygne, Breteyne, Breteigne, Bretaygne, Breteigne, Brittaine, Bretaige, Bretten, Brettayn’, Bryttayne, Britane, Brittaine, Brytayne, Brutayne; MALORY: Brytayne, Bretayne; GERMAN: Bertâne, Bretâne, Britâne; DUTCH: Bertaenge, Bertaengie; NORSE: Bretlandi; SPANISH: Bretaña; PORTUGUESE: Bretanha, Bertanha; ITALIAN: Brettagna, Brectagna; WELSH: Prydein (Prydain).

Great BritainEdit

FRENCH: Grant Bretaigne, Grant Bertaigne, Bretaigne la Grant; LATIN: Britannia Maior; ENGLISH: Gret(e) Breteygne, Gret(e) Bretayne, Breteyne the Gret(e), More Britayne, More Breteyne, Breteine þe More, Michel Breteyne, Mukyl Breotayne, Bretayn þe Brade, Bretayn the Brode, Bretayne þe Brodere; MALORY: Grete Bretayne; SPANISH: Gran Bretaña; PORTUGUESE: Gram Bretanha, Gram Bertanha; ITALIAN: Gran Brettagna, Grande Brettagna.


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