History of the Kings of Britain

by Geoffrey of Monmouth

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1748

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.

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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 Picts and other tribes living in remote areas. Further, the Romans were unwilling to provide sufficient garrisons and after a time grew reluctant to bring reinforcements from Gaul.

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After the Romans ceased military operations in the land, the Saxons began their depredations. Following the departure of the Romans, efforts to unite the kingdom proved unsuccessful. The story of Vortigern, Hengest, and Horsa, taken primarily from Bede, is narrated as a tale of violence and revenge that continues through generations of monarchs. Vortigern, an ambitious Briton, betrayed King Constantine and his son Constans. With the help of Saxon allies, whom he invited to England as allies against the Picts and other rebellious Britons, Vortigern seized the throne for himself. Constantine’s two younger sons, Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, fled to Europe. An interest in prophecy led Vortigern to locate the youthful magician Merlin to seek his guidance.

By the beginning of book 7, halfway through the narrative, the groundwork is laid for the final portion. The last books introduce the reign of Arthur, portrayed as a Briton champion against the Saxons. Book 7 is entirely devoted to the “Prophecy of Merlin,” a piece written by Geoffrey before he began the Historia regum Britanniae and incorporated into the narrative. The prophecy offers a mystical vision of the future that features symbolic dragons, animal imagery, and strange transformations. Taken as a whole, it is a troubling anticipation of chaos, without any clear resolution, though it is intended to foreshadow national history.

Following the prophecy, the narrative resumes with an account of the two remaining sons of Constantine, who returned from exile, defeated Vortigern, and restored their line with Aurelius Ambrosius as king. Uther Pendragon led armies against enemies who were still in rebellion and became king after his brother was treacherously slain. Through the trickery of Merlin, Uther begat Arthur with Igerne, wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall, and, after Gorlois died in battle, married Igerne.

Books 9-11 are wholly concerned with the exploits of Arthur. A Briton leader against the Saxons, he became king while still a boy, united his nation, and gathered chiefs and kings from outlying and remote areas to his thriving court at Caerleon, later Camelot, on the Usk River. Having united his own nation, he ventured abroad to conquer Gaul and Norway, and, after refusing demanded tribute from Rome, led an English army to the continent in battle with the Romans. The Romans summoned monarchs from their eastern provinces to their aid, but to no avail. In a decisive battle, Lucius, the Roman emperor, was killed, though losses were heavy on both sides. Arthur lost two of his best knights, Kay and Bedivere. Later, he moved his army to the gates of Rome, before being called back to Britain by a treasonous rebellion fomented by his nephew Mordred.

Mordred raised an immense army of 800,000, but Arthur’s war-hardened veterans prevailed against the huge force. A final great battle, alleged to have occurred in the year 542 by Geoffrey, led to the deaths of the mythic monarch and of Mordred. The queen entered a convent, and the Briton crown went to Constantine, son of the duke of Cornwall.

Following Arthur’s death, other kings, notably Constantine, Cadwallo, and Cadwallader, continued the struggle against the Saxons, until a dire famine in the seventh century forced all but a few native Britons to abandon their native land. In 689, King Cadwallader, the last of the Briton line, died in exile in Rome. The Saxons gained dominance over the kingdom by returning and resettling before the native Britons. The narrative ends with prophecies that suggest the Britons will someday reclaim their land.

Critics of Geoffrey’s narrative sometimes label it folklore, for, despite authentic portions, the work reveals many historical defects. On a grand scale, Geoffrey reveals a flaw that besets many later histories as well: the inclination to project realities of the present onto the past. Thus he writes of ranks of nobility in pre-Roman Britain that did not exist until after the Norman conquest. He assumes at least a partially unified kingdom in Celtic times, when in reality nothing resembling national unity was achieved before the tenth century. Even more extraordinary, he believes that in a prehistoric era, British kings led a military expedition against Rome. This account and that of Arthur’s similar adventures abroad serve to create the illusion of Britons aspiring to empire from the remote past.

The narrative introduces scores of monarchs who were previously unknown and for whom no other historical record exists, and it is apparent that Geoffrey is filling out his story with fictional characters. Like other early historians, he provides long, often eloquent, speeches, furnished verbatim, that were uttered in a preliterate time. Finally, his numerical estimates exceed the credible, even for his own day. Although it was possible to raise large armies of hundreds of thousands in the ancient world, such occurrences were highly unusual. Mordred’s combined force of 800,000 exceeds anything ever known in early British history. Equally incredible is the force of 300,000 Northmen who supposedly made a coordinated invasion of the island by ship; such an expedition would have required more than eight thousand Viking ships.

It is in the treatment of the supernatural, though, that the qualities of mythic history are most apparent. Obvious elements include the frequent references to battles against giants, incredible transformations, the influence of magic, numerous prophecies, and abundant dragon and animal imagery.

Geoffrey’s most significant achievements were not historical but literary. His book served as a source for characters and plots in both English and European literatures. He first created Sabrina, the nymph transformed into a river goddess, who becomes a symbol of Christian grace in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and John Milton’s Comus (1634). He narrated for the first time the story of King Leir and his three daughters, a tale that William Shakespeare turned into a great English tragedy. He also organized the scattered fragments of the Arthurian story into a coherent whole. In doing so, he gave the story a cyclic form, with mythic beginnings and endings. As in the story of Belinus, Arthur attempted to expand his rule from kingdom to empire, an objective perhaps attributable to the example of Rome and the precedent of Vergil’s Aeneid(29-19 b.c.e.).

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