Arthur and the Kings of Britain: The Historical Truth Behind the Myths
Just before this book was published, Dr Russell, who is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and Senior Lecturer in Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology at Bournemouth University, told me that he researched it as part of the Lost Voices of Celtic Britain Project at Bournemouth University in 2008 but, despite the work itself having been largely completed in 2012, it was not finally written up until 2016, and that he was ‘consciously aware (but could do little about it) whilst typing that anything published since 2012 would more than likely have been missed’. Thus, he had not, by his own admission, read my Brutus of Troy, and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British (Pen and Sword, 2015) or my Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors (Pen and Sword, 2013).
Because neither of us knew of each other’s work until now, it is interesting and encouraging to see how much we agree on the subject of the Roman and pre-Roman sections of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136). We both, independently, came to our own conclusions that Geoffrey made creative use of older sources, some of which may have derived from Roman or pre-Roman times. We can both, therefore, see our work as part of a growing trend away from regarding Geoffrey’s work either as complete truth, or complete rubbish, and towards recognising his text as a patchwork of older material, heavily manipulated in order to create a seamless history of Britain down from its alleged Trojan foundations. Having made this breakthrough, we can then attempt to mine Geoffrey’s work for possible, real historical information about ancient Britain. It is then of course that the fun – and inevitably the disagreement – starts.
Geoffrey’s History starts with the arrival in Britain of Brutus of Troy and his sidekick Corineus, and then brings down a long line of kings to the historically-attested rulers of the Catuvellauni in Hertfordshire who faced the Roman invasion. Chapter two, ‘unlocking the histories’ attempts to do just that by analysing Geoffrey’s section on Caesar’s invasion, building on ideas set out a century ago by Sir Flinders Petrie and concluding, plausibly (p. 55) that it is a mish-mash of otherwise now lost accounts (not including Caesar’s own, which isn’t lost), including two emanating from the courts of Cassivellaunus of the Catuvellauni (in Hertfordshire) and Mandubracius of the neighbouring Trinovantes (in Essex). That works as a stand-alone theory, but Dr Russell then places perhaps too much emphasis on this, and on the south-east of England in general, as a key to unlocking all of Geoffrey’s pre-Roman material, rather than looking further afield.
Geoffrey refers once to ‘Tenuantius duke of Cornwall’: Dr Russell (pp. 42-3) attempts to equate him with Tasciovanus of the Catuvellauni. Then, whenever Geoffrey refers to the Cornish, Dr Russell asserts that Geoffrey’s original source(s) must have meant the Catuvellauni. But Geoffrey’s patron Robert, Earl of Gloucester had estates in Cornwall, and there is every suggestion in Geoffrey’s text that he knew Cornwall and took pains to include it frequently in his History, regardless of what sources he may have had in front of him. Dr Russell takes a similar view regarding Geoffrey’s references to Trinovantum. As I showed in Brutus of Troy (p. 94), Orosius called the Trinovantes tribe of Iron Age Essex Trinobantum firmissima ciuitas , ‘the strong tribe of the Trinovantes’, which Bede misinterpreted as ‘the strong city of the Trinovantes’. Geoffrey seized on the idea that this (non-existent) ‘city’s’ name was really ‘Troy Novant’, ‘new Troy’, and asserted that this was the original name of London. Throughout his History, he writes of London as Trinovantum, and later explains that Trinovantum was renamed London by a king called Lud. Dr Russell is determined, however, that the place to which Geoffrey was referring must have been within the Trinovantes’ territory. There is no reason for this assumption. In Geoffrey’s time, London was England’s capital: ergo, he thought it must always have been the capital. But, determined to identify a Trinovates tribal history throughout the early sections of the History, Dr Russell looks determinedly eastward and suggests on p. 40 that Geoffrey’s Trinovantum was ‘possibly Camulodunum’ (Colchester). This supposition becomes ‘presumably’ by p. 74; it has ‘already been established’ by p. 87 and by p. 116 we are told that ‘Trinovantum, which Geoffrey and others have identified with London… is, as we have already noted, in reality… Colchester’. Thus he establishes his idée fixe , that whenever Geoffrey mentions Trinovantum (‘New Troy’/London) his original source meant the Trinovantes tribe, and that whenever Geoffrey refers to Cornwall, the original source meant the Catuvellauni, and thus (p. 87) ‘the geographical and geopolitical uncertainties of Geoffrey’s narrative melt away’.