The History of the Kings of Britain
© 1996 Sheila Brynjulfson
In 1136, seventy years after the Norman Conquest of England, a Welsh
cleric named Geoffrey of Monmouth completed a work in Latin which he titled Historia Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey was apparently a canon at the secular college of St. George's until the institution's demise in 1149. Two years later he was elected Bishop of St. Asaph, which is now called Flintshire, and he died four year later. Beyond these facts, little is known about him, save what can be gleaned from his History. He was but one of many British historians to put pen to paper in the twelfth century, but none of the others ever attained the notoriety which Geoffrey achieved. The arrival of the new Norman overlords spurred the frantic writing of history as the Church scrambled to reorient itself to this new political reality.(1)
As we shall soon see, Geoffrey was particularly sensitive to this need,
and he possessed the chutzpa necessary to deliver precisely the
history for which Britain was crying out.
The modern historian must content herself with the very few manuscripts of ancient Britain which had survived. Several Roman accounts of the conquest of Britain exist, but from the period between the fifth and twelfth centuries, very few manuscripts of any kind remain. Chief among these are the De Excidio Brittaniae et Conquestu (circa 542) of Gildas, the Venerable Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (circa 730), and an odd manuscript called Historia Brittonum, compiled by a monk
named Nennius in 810. Gildas, Bede, and Nennius combine into an extremely skeletal outline of the period in question. Gildas was not particularly concerned with writing history; his goal was to denounce the immorality of the tyrants of his day. He gives only the sordid historical details necessary to support his righteous tirade. Bede, on the other hand, was much more historical, but he was foremost a pious man of God. Most of his history is ecclesiastical, focusing on the saints and their activities in Britain. His account of earliest Britain agrees with that of the Romans, and his information on the interim period between Roman and Saxon rule he borrows from Gildas. And since he was of Saxon descent, the rest of Bede's history has a decidedly Anglo-Saxon emphasis. About eighty years later, Nennius's history appears. Nennius contains some new information not found in either Gildas or Bede, but his collection is, by his own admission,
rather artlessly thrown together.(2) And after Nennius, no other British historical manuscripts survive until the twelfth century appearance of Geoffrey and several other historians from among his countrymen.
Geoffrey draws from Gildas, Nennius, and Bede in his History,
and he admits as much throughout the book. But he claims to have an advantage which neither the historians of yore nor his contemporary rivals have: possession of "a certain very ancient book written in the British language." That very ancient book, Geoffrey assures his reader, was "attractively composed to form a consecutive and orderly narrative" which "set out all the deeds of these men, from Brutus, the first King of the Britons, down to Cadwallader, the son of Cadwallo." The book was lent to him by his friend Walter, the Archbishop of Oxford, who was also considered to be learned in the field of history. It was at Walter's request, Geoffrey tells us in the dedication of his History, that he endeavored to translate the book from "the British language" (most historians understand this to mean Welsh) into Latin.(3)
Equipped with Archbishop Walter's book, Geoffrey had in his hands a
complete and continuous history of the island--or so he said. That very
ancient book is the center of a controversy that has clung to Geoffrey
since his own time. There is no surviving manuscript of the book. Most
historians confess that there is very little (if any) firm evidence to
support the belief that a book like this ever existed, but many of them
are loath to give up the quest.(4) In 1951 a variant version of History was published which differs in many ways from the standard Latin vulgate text. This version lacked dedications, the acknowledgment of Archbishop Walter, and any references to a very ancient book, all of which appear in one form or another in the vulgate texts. Examination of the variant version led some scholars to theorize that this may have been Geoffrey's very ancient book. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with this theory. First, the book lacks the antiquity one would expect it to have; indeed, it seems to be contemporary with Geoffrey himself. Second, it is not written in the "British language," it is written
in Latin.(5) To understand the
controversy over the very ancient book, however, one must examine Geoffrey's History first.
The History of the Kings of Britain is a detailed narrative which begins with the Trojan diaspora which followed the fall of Troy. Geoffrey spends many pages on Brutus, the Trojan who was guided by the goddess Diana to lead Britain's first inhabitants to the island (that is, if you don't count the giants that were living there at the time). Brutus founded the city of Troia Nova (New Troy), later called Trinovantum, later called London, and it is after him that the island and its new resident population are named.(6) From these beginnings the Britons developed a sophisticated civilization, complete with roads, amphitheaters, and baths. Two wise lawgivers, Dunvallo Molmutius and Queen Marcia, separately codified bodies of just laws for the people.(7) There was a dramatic power struggle between two brothers, Belinus and Brennius, over the kingship of Britain to which Geoffrey pays special attention. Eventually the Romans show up, and they are surprised to find a civilization very much like their own thriving on this island that was "situated on almost the utmost border of the earth . . . and poised in the divine balance, as it is said, which supports the whole world."(8)
In this brief summary of the early history of Britain lies the essence of Geoffrey's historical method: he is a bold and unrepentant revisionist. He is very careful to retain the sequence of events as recorded in other sources, but the outcomes he freely changes to suit himself. Never mind that Caesar's description of the Britons did not include any mention of advanced civilizations with baths and amphitheaters. Never mind the accounts of Bede and Nennius which record the defeat of the Britons with little effort by the Romans. During Caesar's second campaign against the island, the Britons planted thick metal-tipped spikes "as thick as a man's thigh" into the bed of the Thames, with the intention of piercing the hulls of the Roman ships as they sailed upriver. Both Bede and Nennius report that the Romans easily saw through the trick and avoided the spikes altogether.(9) Geoffrey, however, tells us that the Roman ships ran upon the spikes and "[t]housands of soldiers were drowned as the river water flowed into the holed ships and sucked them down."(10)
With only a cursory examination of the sources, it is obvious that Geoffrey's version of history is quite at odds with other versions. The question, then, is why? Why does Geoffrey write what appear to be nothing more than wild fabrications? One answer might be that he really did have a very ancient book from which he gleaned the real story. He very adeptly inserts phrases into his narrative which almost convince the reader that he does indeed have a book which contains even more detail than he can include. More likely, though, is that he instead had an agenda, and the audacity to push the limits of revisionism to extreme lengths to achieve it. Geoffrey's agenda was to give a more flattering shape to the history of the Britons. By Geoffrey's time, the Britons had been successively conquered by the
Romans, the Saxons, the Danes, and finally the Normans. Britain's centuries-old role as doormat for any group of would-be invaders was undoubtedly humiliating. As a Welshman, Geoffrey's goal was to put the Britons back on an even social and cultural footing with the rest of the civilized western world. It is difficult to know to whom he was writing and what precisely he hoped to achieve, but one thing is certain: Geoffrey's History had far-reaching and long-lasting effects on British cultural mythology and western European
The way in which he achieves these effects is brilliant. He begins by establishing the Britons as a dignified and ancient civilization descended from Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy. This legitimized the Britons by connecting them to the classical Mediterranean civilizations, among them Greece and Rome. Therefore, according to Geoffrey, as Caesar looked across the Channel from Gaul, he felt a certain kinship to the Britons based on their common ancestry.(12) The Trojan connection was not a myth simply created ex nihilo by
Geoffrey; Nennius had mentioned it in minimal detail three hundred years earlier as one of three conflicting explanations of British origins. Geoffrey seized upon the idea, fleshed out the gaps in the story, and thereby created a very respectable past for his people. He attempted to show that in spite of the many times that Britain had been conquered, her dignified culture had survived with respectable continuity.
Most of Geoffrey's historical material is appropriated from recognizable sources and manipulated to produce a pro-British propaganda piece. The complexity of the finished product is impressive. After giving the Britons a Trojan origin, Geoffrey begins weaving together many threads, tying the previously sketchy past to the political present with great artistry. The next example of British accomplishment comes by way of Belinus and Brennius, the sons of Dunvallo Molmutius the Law-Giver. According to Geoffrey, the
brothers invaded Gaul and sacked Rome in 390 B.C., "proving" that Britons had conquered Rome, the greatest civilization in the world, long before Rome conquered the Britons.(13) We know from many ancient sources which predate Geoffrey that Rome was indeed sacked in 390 B.C., and that the raid was led by a man named Brennus, but he and his invading horde were Gallic, not British.(14)
In this episode several features of Geoffrey's editing method can be seen: he modified the historical Brennus, created the brother Belinus, borrowed the Gallic invasion, but omitted the parts where the Gauls seemed weak or foolish.(15) His technique is both additive and subtractive. Like the tale of Trojan origin, the story of the sack of Rome is not pure fabrication; it is a creative rearrangement of the available facts, with details added as necessary. These examples show that Geoffrey is very careful and very skilled in making sure that all the various strands of his stories come neatly together at the end to glorify the Briton civilization.
The pattern of appropriation and adaptation continues throughout the
History. Geoffrey's two most famous characters are handled in the same way. From Geoffrey's History the British King Arthur, his other-worldly advisor Merlin, and his legendary court emerge in full vibrant color from the mysterious silences of Gildas and Bede. Until Nennius heaped together his Historia Brittonum in the ninth century, there had been no mention of anyone named Arthur in any of the manuscripts of early British history, or in any Roman annals. Merlin, in Geoffrey's History, is a composite figure derived from The Black Book of Carmarthen, where he appears as a prophet named Myrddin.(16) Onto the Welsh prophet Myrddin Geoffrey grafts a figure from Nennius, the boy without a father named Ambrose (or Ambrosius) who prophesies to the
tyrant Vortigern.(17) Put them together and you have Merlin Ambrosius, the mysterious and long-lived magus who orchestrated the circumstances under which Arthur, the Boar of Cornwall (whom Merlin had prophesied as a child) was conceived.
This is the ultimate set-up for the most stellar character in Geoffrey's history, Arthur. Arthur was conceived of Uther Pendragon, King of the Britons, and Ygerna, the wife of Gorlois, one of Uther's subject dukes. Uther was less than subtle about his desire for Gorlois's wife, so Gorlois locked her away in his high and inaccessible castle at Tintagel. When Uther's siege of Tintagel proved ineffective, he begged Merlin for help. Merlin agreed to give Uther a drug which would transform him into the likeness of Gorlois, who was at the time besieging one of Uther's castles. Once the transformation was complete, Uther passed easily by the duke's guard and consummated his lust for Ygerna. From their tryst would spring that flower of British manhood, King Arthur.(18)
Arthur's somewhat supernatural conception fits neatly into Geoffrey's master plan. He gives Arthur an origin similar to that of Heracles: Zeus, taking the form of Amphitryon, visited Alemene in her husband's absence and begat Heracles.(19) So Arthur therefore is positioned among other well-known demigods, just in time to resist yet another band of conquerors, the Saxons. In the process, Arthur subdues the wild force of the invaders as well as a few of his own subjects. Having ushered in a golden age of peace and civility, Arthur then turns he attention to Europe. He conquers Norway and Gaul, and does battle with the Roman emperor Lucius.(20) Just as the Britons are preparing to cross the Alps and strike at the heart
of the empire, Arthur receives disturbing news from home. His nephew Mordred, to whom he had entrusted the care of Britain while he was away, had committed an act of extreme treachery by seizing the crown and taking Arthur's queen for himself.(21)
Their final battlefield was at Camlann, and there Arthur received a
mortal wound. With his passing begins a downward spiral for the noble British society. The Battle of Camlann, the last footprints left upon history (and pseudo-history) by Arthur, returns us once again to Geoffrey's very ancient book. This is the only incident in the entire History where Geoffrey specifically states that he took his account from the book of which he so freely boasts possession in the dedication of his history.(22) What conclusions can we therefore draw concerning Geoffrey and his sources?
Firm conclusions are few in number. Geoffrey definitely drew from the works of Gildas, Bede, Nennius, and the Roman historian Orosius. He probably also took some of his information from Welsh oral tradition. And he may even have had a book on loan to him by Walter of Oxford, although it may have contained less information than Geoffrey initially suggests. It is clear that History of the Kings of Britain is not completely fiction, but it is equally clear that much of it is.
So where does that leave Geoffrey? Geoffrey stands ambiguously perched between the disciplines of history and literature. He wrote in the post-Augustinian age where "history and story had not yet made their declaration of mutual independence." (23) His historical side we have discussed at length, but his literary side deserves a passing mention as well. Geoffrey's history was extremely popular. One hundred and eight-six manuscripts of the Historia Regum Brittaniae have survived, forty-eight of which are complete, and two of which, although fragmentary, date to Geoffrey's own century.(24)
That so many have survived is surely a statement on how many were in circulation throughout the middle ages. To be unfamiliar with the History, in the words of one of Geoffrey's contemporaries, was "to incur a mark of rusticity."(25) Geoffrey is the reason why nearly everyone in the western world knows who King Arthur is. It was he who lit the romantic literary flame, and European writers had a field day with it for several hundred years. The medieval romance writers, the most prominent of whom were Chrétien de Troyes and Sir Thomas Malory, expanded the Arthurian story and infused it with their own cultural values, and created an epic tragedy which still has the power to capture twentieth century imaginations. Another little-known contribution of Geoffrey's to western literature is the story of King Lear, which William Shakespeare
adapted and made famous four hundred years later.(26)
Geoffrey's political influence, regardless of whether or not he wrote good history, was immense. He succeeded in weaving together threads of history and legend and his own imagination to create a cultural myth which the British people enthusiastically embraced. Geoffrey's history gave the Britons a distinguished origin (Brutus), established their reputation as a force to be reckoned with in Europe (Belinus and Brennius as well as Arthur), and trivialized the notion of good Saxon government by "demonstrating" that Alfred's much-touted law was nothing more than a translation of ancient British law. But most importantly of all, Geoffrey put the Britons on an even mythological footing with the Norman conquerors, who also claimed Trojan ancestry.(27)
The Plantagenet monarchs also found Geoffrey's History useful. More than once his fictitious Trojan lineage was used to justify various regal claims. The Tudor and Stuart monarchs also cited Geoffrey's history to support their dynastic successions. The last documented claim of this nature was made by James VI of Scotland. When it became apparent that Elizabeth I would produce no heir, James VI claimed the right of inheritance based on the fact that he could trace his pedigree to Brutus the Trojan and to Llewellyn, the last native Prince of Wales. Eventually, after nearly five hundred years, Geoffrey's "social utility" came to an end with the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, which ushered in a preference for history over legend.(28) Yet Geoffrey lives on as the focus of an academic controversy which he planted eight hundred and sixty years ago with his bold manuscript, and in the literary works of art which his History has inspired.
Bede, the Venerable. Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.
Translated and edited by J.A. Giles. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated and with an Introduction by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1966; reprint, 1968.
Gildas. De Excidio Britanniae et Conquestu. Translated and edited by J. A. Giles, Six Old English Chronicles. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900.
Nennius. Historia Brittonum. Translated and edited by J. A. Giles, Six Old English Chronicles. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900.
Curley, Michael J. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Twayne's English Author Series. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Goodrich, Norma Lorre. King Arthur. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
Gransden, Antonia. Historical Writing in England, c. 550 - c.1307. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974; reprint, 1982.
Keeler, Laura. Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Late Latin Chroniclers, 1300 - 1500. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946.
MacDougall, Hugh A. Racial Myth in English History: Trojans, Teutons, and Anglo-Saxons. Montreal: Harvest House, 1982.
Scott, John, ed. The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation, and Study of William of Malmesbury's "De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie."
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1981.
Ashe, Geoffrey. "A Certain Very Ancient Book: Traces of an Arthurian
Source in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History," Speculum 56 (February 1981): 301-23.
Malone, Kemp. "The Historicity of Arthur." Journal of English and
Germanic Philology 23 (1924): 463-91.
1. John Scott, ed., The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation, and Study of William of Malmesbury's "De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie," (Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1981), 15.
2. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, 1:1-2; J.
A. Giles, ed. Six Old English Chronicles. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1900).
3. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, trans. Lewis Thorpe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1966; reprint, 1968), 51.
4. One author, Norma Lorre Goodrich, has gone so
far as to claim that the best evidence for the existence of Geoffrey's
very ancient book is the richness of detail found in his History. Ms. Goodrich does not give Geoffrey much credit for his imagination, as she argues that he could not possibly have made it all up, therefore he must have had another source. This argument, aside from its inherent absurdity, also overlooks an abundance of odd anachronisms peppered throughout Geoffrey's descriptions which further discredit the idea of an ancient source.
5. Lewis Thorpe, introduction to History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, 16.
6. Michael J. Curley, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Twayne's English Authors Series (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 15.
7. Geoffrey, History, 94, 100. Geoffrey tells us that King Alfred later took this body of law and translated it into Saxon, calling it the "Mercian Law" after wise Queen Marcia the Briton.
8. Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae et Conquestu, 2.3; J. A. Giles, ed. Six Old English Chronicles. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1900). For Caesar's brief monologue on the common Trojan heritage of the Britons and the Romans, see Geoffrey, History, 105.
9. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, 3.20, and
Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, J.A. Giles, ed. (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849; reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1971), 8.
10. Geoffrey, History, 112.
11. Hugh A. MacDougall, Racial Myth in English History: Trojans, Teutons, and Anglo-Saxons (Montreal: Harvest House, 1982), 7.
12. Geoffrey, History, 105.
13. Ibid., 98-9.
14. Curley, Geoffrey of Monmouth, 24.
15. Ibid., 26. The name "Belinus" appears
in Nennius' Historia Brittonum (3.19), but he is a Roman proconsul contemporary with Julius Caesar.
16. Charles and Beth Moorman, An Arthurian Dictionary (University Press of Mississippi: 1978), 89.
17. Nennius, Historia Brittonum, 3.42. Vortigern was king after the departure of the Romans, during the early years of Saxon immigration, early fifth century A.D..
18. Geoffrey, History, 206-7.
19. Kemp Malone, "The Historicity of Arthur," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 23 (1924): 484.
20. Geoffrey, History, 222-5, 241-57. He
also fights a giant along the way.
21. Ibid., 257.
22. Geoffrey Ashe, "A Certain Very Ancient Book," Speculum 56 (February 1981): 301.
23. Laura Keeler, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Late Latin Chroniclers, 1300-1500 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946), 2.
24. Thorpe, introduction to History, 28.
25. MacDougall, Racial Myth in English History, 11. The work quoted is Aluredi Beverlacensis Annales by Alfred of Beverly.
26. Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England, c. 550 - c.1307 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974; reprint, 1982), 203. Geoffrey's Lear was spelled "Leir," and his rule is alleged to be contemporary with the founding of Rome. See Geoffrey, History, 81-7.
27. Curley, Geoffrey of Monmouth, 15. The
seventh century Chronicle of Fredegar links the ancestry of the
Frankish people to the dispersed clan of Aeneas. This is probably where
Geoffrey got the idea.
28. MacDougall, Racial Myth in English History,
7, 21, 26.