Geoffrey of Monmouth, a scholarly clergyman who was to become bishop of St. Asaph’s in Wales, undertook to write a national history of Britain from its origin through the seventh century, some nineteen centuries of history by his reckoning. Arranged in twelve books, on the pattern of Vergil’s Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e.), Geoffrey’s account traces the reigns of nearly a hundred British kings, beginning with the nation’s mythical founder Brutus. As in the Aeneid, there is an important contrast between the first six and the final six books. The first part narrates events that took place over approximately ten centuries, while the latter six books, concerned primarily with the age of King Arthur, are limited to less than two centuries.
To a striking degree, the history is Welsh-centered, with most of the action occurring in Wales and the English counties that border it. It is reasonable to infer that in his writing Geoffrey was influenced by an intent to endow his native Wales and western Britain with a glorious past. For example, the river Severn, which flows through southwestern England, is the stream most often mentioned in Geoffrey’s account, though to history the Thames has greater importance. The original Trojans, Celts, and other tribes living in the land before the Roman conquest in the first century, as well as some Roman settlers, are all collectively labeled Britons. In Geoffrey’s account, they are arrayed against the Saxons, a collective name for the Germanic tribes that began invading the land in the fifth century.
Geoffrey purports to be translating a book by Archdeacon Walter of Oxford, a man about whom little is known beyond Geoffrey’s references; even the book’s existence is in doubt. The archdeacon, though, may have been known to Geoffrey, since he lived at Oxford during years when both were alive. The primary sources appear to have been the histories of Bede and Nennius, the Aeneid, and traditional Welsh stories and myths. In the early books, Geoffrey makes cross-references to events from the Bible and from Greek and Roman history in an effort to establish parallel chronologies. However, in spite of references to actual rulers from the past such as the Roman leaders Julius Caesar and Claudius, what Geoffrey produced is a highly readable mythic history, whose protagonists are essentially fictional characters. The Roman and Saxon invasions were historical events, but in his account Geoffrey mingles fact with extraordinary fiction.
Like many other medieval historians, he begins his narrative with the Trojan War, since he believed that the country was founded by a descendant of the Trojan princes who dispersed after the fall of Troy. Brutus, the mythic founder of Britain, is a great-grandson of the Trojan prince Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. Setting out from Rome in his odyssey, Brutus traveled to Greece, where he joined other Trojan exiles. In armed struggle against the Greeks, they conquered a third of the country, but, in the interests of avoiding further strife, they decided to embark for Britain after a prophecy of Diana directed them to do so. By sea, they made their way to the island, defeated the giants who dominated the land, and founded a kingdom. They then proceeded to establish cities, including the capital Trinovant, later London.
A long series of kings who descended from Brutus are briefly mentioned, including Bladud, founder of Bath. More attention is devoted to the story of King Leir, who parcels out his kingdom among his daughters. For Leir, the folly of disinheriting his youngest daughter ended with good fortune. After he was exiled to France, she aided him in removing her two sisters from power and reclaiming his throne.
Following another long list of kings, the story of King Belinus, still a pre-Roman monarch, is narrated. Belinus united with his brother Brennius, and the two conquered first Gaul and later Rome. In the first century b.c.e., Julius Caesar arrived with a large Roman force but was driven back to France by heroic Britons. Later, the Emperor Claudius returned and established Roman rule over England. Roman rule was highly disordered because of rebellions and incursions by...
(The entire section is 1748 words.)