Historia Regum Britanniae

Historia Regum Britanniae
   by Geoffrey of Monmouth
(ca. 1138)
   The Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) is a pseudo-history in Latin prose that relates the legends of the pre-Saxon kings of Britain. Written by GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH in about 1138, the Historia is highly significant in the Western literary tradition because it is the text that first introduced King ARTHUR to the mainstream of European literature.
   Geoffrey was born in Monmouth in southern Wales in about 1100. He may have been Breton rather than Welsh. In either case he would have been familiar with the legendary Celtic British hero Arthur, renowned for having defeated the Saxons at the Battle of Badon. Three different dedications to the Historia—one to Robert, earl of Gloucester, one to King Stephen along with Robert, and one to Count Waleran Beaumont— suggest Geoffrey’s attempts to gain favor with the king and his supporters for purposes of preferment: Robert had first supported Stephen for the crown, then shifted allegiance to his half-sister, Matilda, who invaded England in 1139, and precipitated a civil war.Waleran was one of Stephen’s loyal supporters. Geoffrey’s shifting dedications suggest the shifting alliances of those troubled times. Ultimately, Geoffrey’s efforts paid off when he was named bishop of St. Asaph in 1151. But in the Historia, Geoffrey had produced a work of tremendous appeal. Some 200 Latin manuscripts of the Historia are still extant, attesting to the popularity of the text in the late Middle Ages. Geoffrey clearly was familiar with GILDAS and BEDE, whom he mentions in his introduction. He also drew material from NENNIUS, particularly in his descriptions of some of Arthur’s battles and of some of the “marvels” of Britain. But he says in his dedication that Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, had given him a “certain most ancient book in the British language” that told the history of all the British kings. The consensus among modern scholars is that such a book never existed, that Geoffrey drew most of his material from legend and some from his own vivid imagination. The citation of that “ancient book” is likely the result of medieval writers’ tendency to cite authorities to lend credibility to their work. Most readers saw Geoffrey’s Historia as factual history even through the Renaissance, during which it provided source material for playwrights, such as Shakespeare, looking for familiar historical incidents to dramatize.Most modern readers, however, have no difficulty reading the Historia as fiction.
   The Historia begins with the life of Brutus, greatgrandson of the Trojan Aeneas. Exiled from Italy for accidentally killing his father,Brutus becomes leader of a group of Trojan captives in Greece. He leads them out of captivity, eventually to settle on the island of Albion, which is renamed Britain after him. Thus for hundreds of years, through their mythical founder Brutus, the British people traced their lineage to the Roman nation founded by Aeneas, and, ultimately, back to Troy itself. The Brutus story is followed by brief histories of a series of kings without much to distinguish them, until the detailed and romantic story of King Lear and Cordelia. Another series of kings follows (containing the story of Gorboduc). The next major story concerns Belinus and Brennius, two brothers who contend for the British throne, are eventually reconciled, and end by conquering Gaul and ultimately capturing Rome itself.
   After another series of kings, Geoffrey deals with the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar and the exploits of later Romans, and includes the story of Cymbeline. Book 5 of the text provides another long series of kings, culminating in Constantine, who becomes emperor of Rome.
   The longest, most detailed, and most important part of the Historia occurs in books 6 to 11. The story here begins with Vortigern, who usurps the British throne from its rightful heir, Aurelius Ambrosius. Vortigern foolishly invites Saxons into Britain as mercenaries, but they slaughter the British nobility at a conference and desolate the country. Vortigern flees and is ultimately overthrown by Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther Pendragon. Aurelius is able to stop the Saxons but is killed, and Uther becomes king.With the aid of the seer and sorcerer Merlin, Uther begets Arthur.
   When Arthur becomes king at the age of 15, he defeats the Saxons and then subdues the Picts and Scots.He invades Ireland and conquers it as well as Iceland. He becomes a great emperor, defeating Norway and Denmark and then all of Gaul. Required by a Roman emissary to pay tribute to Rome, Arthur rejects the demand and invades the Roman Empire. He defeats the Roman Lucius and is poised to take Rome itself when he receives word that his kingdom has been usurped in his absence by his nephew Mordred, who has allied himself with the Saxons and has also betrayed him with his wife, Guenevere.
   Arthur has no choice but to return to Britain and fight the usurper. He defeats Mordred at the River Camel but is mortally wounded. He is carried off from the battle to the Isle of Avalon, where his wounds will be “attended to.”With such an end, Geoffrey gives some credence to the “Breton hope”—the legendary belief among the Welsh and Bretons that Arthur was not dead but would come again.
   Geoffrey’s book ends anticlimactically with the pathetic history of the last British king, Cadwallader, the ultimate collapse of the British monarchy, and the victory of the Saxons. The climactic story of Arthur was what made the Historia popular, and it must be acknowledged that Arthur became popular through the Historia. In Geoffrey, Arthur is an epic hero who falls through the turning of Fortune’s Wheel. He is also a messianic hero as he had been to the British people for hundreds of years. The chief outline of Arthur’s career— his “miraculous”birth, his achievement of the crown, his creation of a world-renowned kingdom, his betrayal by his wife and nephew, his wounding and admittance to Avalon—all is created by Geoffrey’s story. In Geoffrey’s text,Arthur wields a sword called Caliburn, holds court in the city of Caerleon, is associated with the magic of Merlin, and has a heroic and rash nephew named GAWAIN.All of these details form a backdrop for the later ROMANCE writers like CHRÉTIEN DE TROYES and MARIE DE FRANCE to fill in with details of Arthur’s knights and further adventures. But the outline of the whole history of Arthur remains essentially the same even through Thomas MALORY’s great compendium of Arthurian tradition at the end of the 15th century.
   ■ Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Edited by Neil Wright. Cambridge: Brewer, 1985.
   ■ Tatlock, J. S. P. The Legendary History of Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950.
   ■ Thorpe, Lewis, trans. The History of the Kings of Britain. London: Penguin, 1966.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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