Historia Regum Britanniae

Geoffrey of MonmouthIn 1066 William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded Britain and subdued the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Anglo-Saxons, in turn, had invaded Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries. Before the Normans and Anglo-Saxons invasions, the original Celtic-speaking Britons had lived on the island for at least a thousand years, leaving a great cultural impact on the region. This indigenous British culture had been slowly dying out since the Anglo-Saxon invasions and was even further endangered by the Normans, who brought along a new wave of French culture. Only in Wales, where people cherished their ancient roots, language and oral traditions, did this original British culture survive. It was in the Welsh town of Monmouth that a certain Geoffrey was born. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric and a prolific author who, at the instigation of Archdeacon Walter of Oxford, set out to write a history on the original British people: the Historia Regum Britanniae.

Written sources
Geoffrey himself claims that his work was simply a Latin translation of an ancient manuscript written in the original British language, that had been found by Archdeacon Walter of Oxford. Now as every historian knows, nothing screams ‘forgery’ like an ancient manuscript allegedly stumbled upon by a cleric. It is possible, though, that Geoffrey did base himself on a few written sources. A certain Nennius had already written a History of the Britons in the ninth century, Saint Gildas had written an account of the Anglo-Saxon invasions in the sixth century and Saint Bede had written an ecclesiastic history of the English people. In addition, a lot of Welsh annals, genealogies and poems were circulating in Geoffrey’s time. The material already existed, but Geoffrey of Monmouth connected the dots and made it into a coherent story.

Oral tradition
Throughout the Middle Ages oral tradition played an important role. Geoffrey of Monmouth probably drew a lot of inspiration from the Welsh bards that had preserved the indigenous British oral traditions. Besides, Geoffrey probably also drew from French material. France had a rich minstrel tradition that was renowned throughout Europe. These minstrels drew material from three epic cycles: the French (or rather Frankish) cycle, centering on Charlemagne and his court, the Roman cycle, that drew inspiration from classical mythology, and the Britannic cycle, which was based on the oral traditions of Brittany. Contrary to what one would expect, the inhabitants of Brittany were not descended from the Gauls, but from later migrants fleeing Britain after the Anglo-Saxon invasion. They thus preserved ancient British oral traditions as well. Since Norman Britain was essentially an extension of France, the oral traditions of Brittany were eventually reintroduced in Britain. All in all, the Historia Regus Britanniae contains mostly British material, although, as we shall see, Geoffrey often tries to connect the Brittanic cycle to the Roman cycle. This can best be illustrated by summarizing the work and highlighting some examples.

Brutus arrives in Albion
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Britain was named after a certain Brutus, a great-grandson of the Trojan hero Aeneas. As we know from Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans had settled in Italy following the destruction of their city. Virgil probably drew from an Italic oral tradition that sought to connect the Italic peoples to one of the heroes of the Trojan War, likely in an attempt to become more respectable in the eyes of the then dominant Greeks. Apparently, the Welsh bards that Geoffrey of Monmouth drew inspiration from had done a similar thing, connecting the British people to the Trojans and also to the much respected Romans. This eponymous Brutus was banished from Italy and after freeing some Trojan slaves in Greece the goddess Diana promised him a new fatherland on an island in the western Ocean. Brutus and his men arrived on the island then known as Albion, an ancient Celtic name used by the first Greek authors to refer to the island. Celtic Albion is probably related to Italic ‘alpes’, which means ‘mountains’ or ‘hills’. Scotland is still called Alba in Gaelic.

King Lear and his three daughters
King Lear and his three daughters

Brutus and his three sons
At this point Albion is inhabited only by giants. After defeating the giants, Brutus divides the island among his three sons. Kamber receives Kambria (Wales), Albanactus receives Albany (Scotland), and Locrinus received Loegria (England). The motif of a legendary founding figure dividing his kingdom among three sons also appears in the Biblical story of Noah and his sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, the Persian story of Feraydun and his sons Salm, Tur and Iraj, and the Greek story of Deucalion and his grandsons Dorus, Xuthus and Aeolus. It is a way for people to simplify the origin of nations by tracing them back to a single ancestor and to indicate perceived relations between peoples.

Geoffrey traces the descendants of Brutus through Logrinus until he reaches Bladud (Blaiddyd), who is thought to have lived during the ninth century BC. Bladud’s name may have been derived from genuine Celtic mythology. He is described as a man with a great desire for wisdom. He is said to have studied in Athens and to have mastered magical abilities. These magical abilities came at a price however, since he contracted leprosy. In order to cure this disease, he created hot springs at the location of the town of Bath. This is obviously an origin myth. The town of Bath, renowned for its Roman baths, was founded as Aquae Sulis by the Romans. However, even before the foundation of the town the hot springs appear to have been a sacred spot for the Britons, since Sulis was the name of an ancient British goddess. Bladud eventually died after a failed attempt to fly. He is a perfect example of the archetype of the foolish king whose reliance on magic and his own abilities make him over-confident.

King Lear
Most of you may know Lear from the works of Shakespeare, but it was in the Historiae Regum Britanniae that he first appeared. King Lear (Llyr) was the son of Bladud, who is said to have ruled for 60 years. He had no sons, only three daughters. His daughter Goneril married the Duke of Cornwall, his daughter Regan the Duke of Albany (Scotland) and the third daughter, Cordelia, married Aganippus, king of the Franks, contrary to the wishes of his father. The fact that the Franks did not rule Gaul at this time seems to be lost to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Eventually, the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany decide that they do not want to await Lear’s death before they could get their inheritance and invade Lear’s kingdom. Thereupon, Lear’s son-in-law Aganippus invades Britain with an army of Gauls and defeats the rebellious dukes. Cordelia becomes queen, but soon after her death Britain is divided again by several civil wars. King Lear, like Bladud, may have an origin in Celtic mythology, but his rationalized life story was probably a more recent development.

Brennius sacks Rome
After generations of infighting, Britain is once again united by Dunvallo Molmutius. After his death his eldest son Belinus (a name derived from the Celtic god Belenos) inherits the southern half, while his younger son Brennius becomes king in the north. Soon a civil war breaks out betweent the two brothers and eventually Brennius is forced to seek asylum in Gaul. He then tries to conquer Britain with an army of Gauls, but his mother manages to reconcile him with his brother. Belinus and Brennius then proceed to conquer all of Gaul and Brennius proceeds to sack Rome. Rome was indeed sacked by a certain Brennus in 387 BC, but this Brennus was a mere tribal chief and certainly not the king of Britain and Gaul combined. This story is clearly an attempt to link British and French history to the Roman cycle; a case of historical fiction.

Le Brenn et sa part de butin. Paul Jamin, 1893.
Le Brenn et sa part de butin. Paul Jamin, 1893.

Cassibelanus vs. Caesar
Another case of historical fiction can be found in the story of Cassibelanus (Caswallawn). Cassibelanus is clearly based on Cassivellaunus, the main opponent of Caesar in Britian. However, the account that Geoffrey gives of Cassibelanus’s wars against Caesar often contradict Caesar’s own account. Moreover, the Cassivellaunus of Caesar’s account was clearly a tribal chief leading a coalition of tribes, not the king of a unified Britain. The story of Cassibelanus is thus certainly not based on an oral tradition dating back over a thousand years, but pure historical fiction aimed at giving ancient Britain a respectable history.

King Constantine of Britain
According to the Historiae Regus Britanniae, a unified British kingdom continued to exist under Roman rule, with its king being only a tributary to the Roman emperor. This is of course not historically accurate, but again an attempt to give the ancient Britons a respectable history. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the British king Coel was the mother of Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine. Being descended of a long line of British kings, Constantine became king of Britain himself before becoming emperor of the Roman Empire. Although this account is mostly fictional, Constantine did rule over the praefecture of Gaul, which included Britain, so in a way Constantine really was king of Britain. Perhaps his reign did leave an impact on British oral traditions.

The coming of the Anglo-Saxons and King Arthur
The best known part of the Historiae Regus Britanniae is the section dealing with the legendary king Arthur, who is mostly known in this work for being the one who repelled the Anglo-Saxon invasions. The history of king Arthur starts with the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain, upon which the Picts, the Scots and the Danes attack the British kingdom. The British king Vortigern foolishly decides to hire a group of Anglo-Saxon mercenaries led by Hengist (stallion) and Horsa (horse), who proceed to take over the kingdom. Eventually, a British general named Aurelius Ambrosius kills the incompetent king Vortigern and he and his brother Uther Pendragon proceed to fight the Ango-Saxons and their other enemies. Upon Aurelius Ambrosius’s death, Uther Pendragon becomes the sole leader of the Britons, but he too dies before his can complete his task. His son Arthur, however, manages to regain his father’s position as king of the Britons and manages to drive out the Anglo-Saxons. He then proceeds to conquer much of Western Europe. Since Vortigern and Aurelius Ambrosius are mentioned in the sixth century account by Gildas, I am inclined to believe that Uther and Arthur were also historical. However, they were little more than local British chiefs fighting off the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Later many legends were attributed to Arthur and his knights in the oral traditions of Wales and Brittany, which is where Geoffrey of Monmouth drew his information from.

Although the Historia Regum Britanniae is clearly an invented history, it is interesting for exactly that reason. It shows how the remnants of the indigenous British population sought to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the Latin speaking world by presenting Britain as a unified kingdom that had existed since Homeric times and by connecting British history to Roman history. Furthermore, the accounts of late Roman and sub-Roman Britain may contain some historical information, or at least show how these periods were percieved by medieval Britons. All in all, the Historia Regum Britanniae can teach us much more than Geoffrey of Monmouth ever intended.