Belinus and Brennus

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Historical Records

Sir John Harrington’s list of playbooks.

Harrington's list is believed to have been compiled c. 1610 (Add. MS 27632, fol.43r-v: Shakespeare Documented).

The entry "Belynus. Brennus" appears just above the third column (fol.43r), below an entry reading “Ferrex & Porrex quare”. As outlined below (For What It's Worth), these two narratives are connected in both thematic and chronicle history contexts.

Theatrical Provenance


Probable Genre(s)

History, Romance, Pseudo-history

Wiggins (4:1268) catalogues the play’s contemporary genre as “comedy,” presumably due to Harrington’s list being headed as “Names of Comodyes” (fol.43r).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Chronicle accounts

Belinus and Brennus were brothers and sometime joint kings of pre-Roman Britain, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1130) and the subsequent chronicle and literary traditions emerging from this work, including almost all sixteenth-century print chronicles. The account of their reigns is one of the most detailed in the pre-Arthurian sections of the Historia, and as such any play treating on the subject would have needed to choose, compress, or otherwise adapt the narrative, which in Holinshed’s Chronicles (1577; ff. 23-28) falls into roughly three phases:

1)    Belinus and Brennus are made joint-rulers of Britain by their father Mulmutius Dunwallo (subject of a lost Rose play); ruling in the North but wanting more, Brennus invades Belinus in the south, marrying a Norwegian princess in order to gain her father’s military support; crossing the sea, he is ambushed by the Danish king Cutlack (subject of a lost Rose play), who abducts Brennus’s new wife; Brennus asks Belinus for support but Belinus refuses and defeats Brennus in battle; Brennus escapes to Gallia and is taken in by Seginus of Amorica; Belinus defeats Cutlack but releases him on promise of Danish tribute; now sole ruler of Britain, Belinus confirms the Mulmutine laws established by his father, completes the building of Britain’s four major roads, also begun by Multmutius, and builds Belin’s Gate (i.e. Billingsgate).

2)    Brennus marries Seginus’s daughter; Seginus dies, making Brennus duke of Amorica; Brennus invades Britain again; as the two armies meet, their mother intercedes and implores them to reconcile and restore peace; they do so, and after consulting with their counsellors decide to invade the continent.

3)    Belinus and Brennus conquer Gallia, regions of Italy and Germany and, eventually, Rome at the head of a Gallian army; In some accounts, Brennus commits suicide after despoiling a temple of Apollo. This sequence in the chronicles is highly detailed but, as Holinshed outlines, was also highly contested in terms of whether the historical Gallian army that conquered Rome was indeed led by Britons, as Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed, or by Gauls, as continental sources claimed; both the “British” Brennus and Gaulish Brennus were discussed and narrated in early modern print, creating confusion, often in-text, as to which Brennus or Brennuses were being discussed, and which accounts were reliable. As Walter Owsolde notes in The Varietie of Memorable and Worthy Matters (1605) on the Brennus who conquered Rome: “This Brennus is by the Britain & English Chronicles reported to be a Britain, and brother to Belinus king of Britain; but neither the Chronicles of Rome nor of Gaule doe speake of any such matter” (f. 12)

Phase one is likely to have been represented in the lost Rose play "Cutlack," meaning that “Belinus and Brennus” may have drawn from phases two or three, or some combination of these.

Literary accounts

An account of this narrative is given in William Warner’s Albions England (1586) and by the ghost of Brennus in the almost-simultaneous 1587 additions to the Mirror of Magistrates. Both of these elaborate from the chronicles in giving a central role and voice to the brothers’ mother, Corwenna (or Cornewen̄, Cornwenna, or Conwen, depending on the source). Her intercession is outlined briefly in Holinshed, but in the Mirror, set apart with speech marks throughout, her speech becomes a bravura display, taking sixteen seven-line stanzas, and forty lines of verse in Albions England.  

Francis Meres in Palladis Tamia (1598) uses Belinus and Brennus amongst exempla of warring brothers, interesting in the context of Harrington’s note: ‘As Brittaine woulde not containe Porrex and Ferrex; and as the same kingdome coulde not holde Belinus and Brennus’ (f. 219).

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

F. J. Furnivall, in Notes and Queries, was the first to transcribe Harrington’s catalogue.

Greg (Θ 32) includes minor chronicle details about the characters, only citing Brennus as “the Gaulish chieftan who sacked Rome in 390 BC,” noting also Brennus’s appearance in Fuimus Troes.

Chambers (iv 398), suggests that the entry may record two separate plays, “Belinus” and Brennus”.

Wiggins (4: 1268) catalogues the play title as “Belinus” only,  proposing Brennus as “an important character” in the play. He also suggests that this might be the same play as “Cutlack,” which would also have featured Belinus and Brennus, citing the possibility that Philip  Henslowe would sometimes refer to plays by whichever role was played by Edward Alleyn. Wiggins also challenges Chambers’s suggestion that the entry referred to two plays as nowhere else in the catalogue does Harrington log two plays on a single line. Supporting Wiggins, as is shown in the sources, the brothers’ narratives are largely intertwined. Finally, Wiggins argues that the play’s chronicle subject suggests it dates from the 1590s or early 1600s.

For What It's Worth

As noted by Meres (above), and as Harrington’s catalogue implies, the narrative of Belinus and Brennus was comparable with that of Ferrex and Porrex, the warring sons of Gorboduc: However, they are not simply two pairs of warning brothers, but closely linked in the chronicles. Ferrex and Porrex’s disastrous rivalry, as recounted in the final act of Gorboduc (1561) resulted in decades of civil war, which were ended by Mulmutius Dunwallo, who reunited Britain and fathered Belinus and Brennus.

As such, without speculating regarding playing company attribution, any play of Belinus and Brennus would potentially fill a “gap” in the collective English early modern history play repertory, between the Rose’s "Ferrex and Porrex" and "Mulmutius Dunwallow". This sequence might also include "Cutlack" if the narrative of “Belinus and Brennus” addressed narrative material subsequent to the Cutlack episodes in the chronicles.

Given the strong focus on the brothers’ mother, Corwenna, in Mirror for Magistrates and Albions England, it is possible – and fitting with other 1590s history plays’ representation of powerful queens and queen mothers (for example, Locrine, The Troublesome Reign of King John, Edward I, Edward II, 2+3 Henry VI, and Richard III) that Corwenna’s intercession between two armies may have provided a key scene.

However, the brothers’ continental conquests, especially of Rome, seem to have made Brennus – who in certain accounts conducted the invasion alone whilst Belinus ruled Britain – a particular focus of nationalistic and sometimes anti-Catholic interest, as in John Mayo’s The Pope's Parliament (1591; f. 17). Brennus appears independently of Belinus in a 1486 Bristol city pageant performed before Henry VII (REED Bristol 10–12) and in the Oxford University play Fuimus Troes (pub. 1633), in the latter as a conqueror of Rome. So, the play could have focussed on the narrative’s exemplary final phase, switching between Brennus’s heroic martial exploits and Belinus’s more stately lawmaking and roadbuilding in Britain.

Works Cited

Furnivall, F.J. “Sir John Harington's Shak[e]speare quartos.” Notes and Queries, 7-IX.229, 1890: 382–383.
Higgins, John, et al. The Mirror for Magistrates. London, 1587.
Holinshed, Raphael, et al. The firste [laste] volume of the chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. London, 1577.
Meres, Francis. Palladis Tamia. London, 1598.
Mayo, John. The Popes Parliament. London, 1591.
Owsolde, Walter. The Varietie of Memorable and Worthy Matters. London, 1605.
Warner, William. Albions England. London, 1586.

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