FROM DOT TO DOMESDAY
GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH was probably born in the town from which he took his name, though he may have been of Breton descent. Between 1129 and 1151, however, he would appear to have been based at Oxford.* By 1139, Geoffrey had produced his ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ (History of the Kings of Britain).* He begins the work:
“Oftentimes in turning over in mine own mind the many themes that might be subject-matter of a book, my thoughts would fall upon the plan of writing a history of the kings of Britain, and in my musings there upon meseemed it a marvel that, beyond such mention as Gildas and Bede have made of them in their luminous tractate, nought could I find as concerning the kings that had dwelt in Britain before the Incarnation of Christ, nor nought even as concerning Arthur and the many others that did succeed him after the Incarnation, albeit that their deeds be worthy of praise everlasting and be as pleasantly rehearsed from memory by word of mouth in the traditions of many peoples as though they had been written down. Now, whilst I was thus thinking upon such matters, Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, a man learned not only in the art of eloquence, but in the histories of foreign lands, offered me a certain most ancient book in the British language that did set forth the doings of them all in due succession and order from Brutus, the first king of the Britons, onward to Cadwallader, the son of Cadwallo, all told in stories of exceeding beauty.* At his request, therefore, albeit that never have I gathered gay flowers of speech in other men's little gardens, and am content with mine own rustic manner of speech and mine own writing-reeds, have I been at the pains to translate this volume into the Latin tongue. For had I besprinkled my page with high-flown phrases, I should only have engendered a weariness in my readers by compelling them to spend more time over the meaning of the words than upon understanding the drift of my story.”
‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ Book I Chapter 1
But even in the 12th century there were those who suspected that Geoffrey's so-called ‘History’ owed more to his imagination than any “most ancient book”. William of Newburgh began his ‘Historia Rerum Anglicarum’ (History of English Affairs) – the work ends rather abruptly in 1198, presumably William died in that year – with a coruscating attack on Geoffrey:
“... a writer in our times has started up and invented the most ridiculous fictions concerning them [the Britons] ... having given, in a Latin version, the fabulous exploits of Arthur (drawn from the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own), and endeavoured to dignify them with the name of authentic history; moreover, he has unscrupulously promulgated the mendacious predictions of one Merlin, as if they were genuine prophecies, corroborated by indubitable truth, to which also he has himself considerably added during the process of translating them into Latin... no one but a person ignorant of ancient history, when he meets with that book which he calls the History of the Britons, can for a moment doubt how impertinently and impudently he falsifies in every respect... Since, therefore, the ancient historians make not the slightest mention of these matters, it is plain that whatever this man published of Arthur and of Merlin are mendacious fictions, invented to gratify the curiosity of the undiscerning... Therefore, let Bede, of whose wisdom and integrity none can doubt, possess our unbounded confidence, and let this fabler, with his fictions, be instantly rejected by all.”
‘Historia Rerum Anglicarum’ Preface
Nevertheless, Geoffrey's work was very popular and very influential. In her ‘Historical Writing In England, c.550 to c.1307’ (1974), Antonia Gransden writes:
“Nearly two hundred medieval manuscripts are known to have survived (more than Bede's Ecclesiastical History), about fifty dating from the twelfth century, and over one-third of the total are in continental Europe. Geoffrey's influence on subsequent historians was great. From the late twelfth century to the sixteenth his history of the ancient Britons was the generally (but not universally) accepted authority. Furthermore, it was paraphrased in prose and verse, and translated into Welsh, Old English and Anglo-Norman. The vernacular versions were the stock from which grew numerous chronicles. The Brut chronicles (so called from the Brutus story), are continuations of the vernacular versions. The Historia [Regum Britanniae] became popular because it was (according to the tastes of the time) entertaining, because it was patriotic and because there was little genuine information available on the subject.”
Chapter 10
Translations:
Geoffrey of Monmouth ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ by Sebastian Evans
William of Newburgh ‘Historia Rerum Anglicarum’ by Joseph Stevenson
Geoffrey is a signatory on a number of charters between 1129 and 1151, related to religious establishments in, or in the vicinity of, Oxford.
From the contents of a letter written by the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, to a person called Warinus, it is known that Henry came across a copy of Geoffrey's work at the abbey of Bec, in Normandy, in 1139.
The mythical figure of Brutus first appears in, early-9th century compilation, the ‘Historia Brittonum’:
“The island of Britain derives its name from Brutus, a Roman consul.”
‘Historia Brittonum’ §7
The historical (as distinct from Geoffrey's fictional) Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon (“Cadwallader, the son of Cadwallo”) is virtually invisible. He appears in §1 of the earliest Welsh collection of royal genealogies (contained in Harleian MS 3859), and the ‘Annales Cambriae’ indicates that it was in 682 that he died during a “great plague in Britain”.