Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth, as he referred to himself, was probably born in the town from which he took his name. He was evidently nicknamed Geoffrey ‘Arthur’ in his own times, and he would appear to have been based at Oxford between 1129 and 1151.[*] His major work is generally known as the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), but a study of surviving medieval manuscripts, of which there are many, has indicated that Geoffrey called it De Gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons).[*] Geoffrey had published the work by 1139.[*] He begins it:

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 Cadwaladr, the son of Cadwallon, 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 I, 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], and with unblushing effrontery, extols them far above the Macedonians and Romans. He is called Geoffrey, surnamed Arthur, from 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 also very influential. Antonia Gransden writes:

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.
Historical Writing in England, c.550 to c.1307 (1974) Chapter 10

Geoffrey of Monmouth Historia Regum Britanniae by Sebastian Evans
William of Newburgh Historia Rerum Anglicarum by Joseph Stevenson
Henry of Huntingdon ‘Letter to Warin the Breton’ by by Diana Greenway

H.E. Salter (‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and Oxford’, The English Historical Review Vol. 34, 1919) itemized seven charters, which are confidently dated between 1129 and 1151, relating to religious establishments in and around Oxford, that feature Geoffrey in their witness-list. In the earlier five Geoffrey is named Geoffrey Arthur, but in the later two he is Geoffrey bishop-elect of St Asaph.
Geoffrey was consecrated as bishop of St Asaph on 24th February 1152. He apparently died in 1155 – the vernacular Welsh annals known as the Brut y Tywysogion name the deceased “Geoffrey, bishop of Llandaff”, but since the bishop of Llandaff at this time was called Nicholas and was alive and kicking, it is supposed that Llandaff is an error for Llanelwy (the Welsh name of St Asaph).
From the contents of a letter written by the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, to someone he calls Warin the Breton, it is known that Henry came across a copy of Geoffrey’s work at the abbey of Le Bec, in Normandy, in 1139. Henry was amazed to have found material in the book concerning early times that he himself, “although I searched again and again”, had been unable to find any record of, “either oral or written”. In the letter, Henry provides a very brisk résumé of the Historia Regum Britanniae (plus his own additions), and then concludes:
These are the matters I promised you in brief. If you would like them at length, you should ask for Geoffrey Arthur’s great book, which I discovered at Le Bec. There you will find a careful and comprehensive treatment of the above. Farewell.
The mythical figure of Brutus first appears in, early-9th century compilation, the Historia Brittonum:
The island of Britain is so called after one Brutus, a Roman consul.
Historia Brittonum §7
The historical, as distinct from Geoffrey’s fictional, Cadwaladr ap [son of] Cadwallon is virtually invisible. He appears in the line of the kings of Gwynedd in the earliest Welsh collection of royal genealogies (Harleian MS 3859, §1), and the Annales Cambriae date his death, in a plague, to 682. However, the Historia Brittonum (§64) clouds the water by apparently (the text isn’t altogether clear) placing his death, in a plague, during the reign of Oswiu, Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria (642–670). There was, indeed, a famous plague in 664.
In the Introduction to the Latin edition and English translation, by Michael D. Reeve and Neil Wright respectively, published under the title The History of the Kings of Britain in 2007, Reeve comments:
So great was the success of the work, especially in England and northern France, that 217 manuscripts have been listed, perhaps a third of them written before the end of the [12th] century. From their relationships it will emerge below that Geoffrey must actually have called the work De gestis Britonum, and so that is what I shall call it here.
Manuscripts continue to be found. Jaakko Tahkokallio, in an essay titled ‘Early Manuscript Dissemination’, which forms Chapter 5 of A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth (Brill’s Companions to European History Vol. 22), published in 2020, notes that:
The work became successful quickly and the material record of its early reception is exceptional in its extent. The count of surviving manuscripts runs to 225 at the moment, and almost 80 of them can be dated to before c.1210.
The first printed editions were published in 1508: an abridgement by Ponticus Virunius (Ludovico da Ponte), in Reggio Emilia; and a complete text, edited by Ivo Cavellatus, in Paris.
John Edward Lloyd supposed that, since Geoffrey of Monmouth was known as Geoffrey Arthur “in the days of his obscurity” (i.e. in the Oxford charters), Arthur was Geoffrey’s father’s name. Lloyd opined that “a Geoffrey at this time would scarcely be a Welshman”, and that if his father’s name was indeed Arthur:
… the presumption would be strong that Geoffrey was the son of one of the Breton followers of Wihenoc of Monmouth, and the problem how a foreigner came to be so deeply interested in the legends of the old British time would be solved.
A History of Wales Vol. 2 Second Edition (1912) Chapter XIV, iv
It is certainly the case that Geoffrey is partial to Brittany. However, Joshua Byron Smith writes:
… in the Oxford charters “Arthur” is unlikely to be a patronym. In the charter collocations, the name “Artur” never once appears in the genitive case, as would be expected if it were a patronym. Instead, in the charters “Arthur” appears to be an agnomen, a nickname, and as such indicates that the Oxford Geoffrey had a particular interest, one might even say obsession, with the figure of Arthur.
‘Introduction and Biography’, A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth (2020)
Brill’s Companions to European History Vol. 22, freely available online.