This map plots the settings and references in The Mabinogion

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Pre-Roman southern Britain
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePre-Roman southern Britain - Credit: Notuncurious

In the ‘Second Branch of the Mabinogi’ and in ‘Lludd and Llefelys’, there is reference to 'this island' and to the ‘Island of Britain’ (Ynys Prydain) with London as a focal point. In the first of these, Britain is also referred to as ‘The Island of the Strong’ (Ynys y Cedyrn). There are also references to ‘The Island of Britain’ at other points in The Mabinogion. This reflects the importance of Britain for the Welsh, who saw themselves as descendents of the Celtic Britons who inhabited Britain before its invasion by a series of newcomers: Romans, Jutes, Angles and Saxons.

Based mainly on the portrayal of history (or pseudohistory) in the works of writers such as Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, the notion was fostered amongst the Welsh that they had once had, and would at some point have again, a central role in the Island of Britain (Ynys Prydain). This idea became incorporated into medieval Welsh mythology and literature, as seen in ‘The Second Branch of the Mabinogi’ and ‘Lludd and Llefelys’.

It is, of course, difficult to know what concept of ‘Britain’ existed amongst the diverse Celtic tribes that occupied the British Isles prior to the Roman invasion. The Romans gave the areas they conquered in Britain the collective name Britannia, and Londinium (now London) developed into one of their major trading centres. It is likely, therefore, that it was the Romans who were responsible for creating the idea of Britain as an entity, with London as a focal point.

After the Romans finally withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century, the areas designated Britannia were invaded by the Jutes, Angles and Saxons. As a result, the Celtic people of Britain (that is, those who spoke languages derived from Brythonic: notably Welsh, Cumbric and Cornish) became confined to southwest England, Wales, northwest England, and parts of northern England and southern Scotland. It is presumably from this position of loss and retreat that the concept of regaining the Island of Britain became an attractive one.

Confusingly, in The Mabinogi the name Prydain or Prydyn is also sometimes used for Pictland, the archaic name for Northern Scotland. Pictland was not part of Roman Britannia.