Pseudo-History or Famed Fiction? Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia
Geoffrey of Monmouth has gone down in history for his classic epic, the Historia Regum Britanniae , known in English as The History of the Kings of Britain . This masterpiece of medieval literature is well-known for being the origin of the story of King Arthur most of us are familiar with today. But, what do we know about the author himself? Who was Geoffrey of Monmouth, and why did he write this controversial history?
Was the whole story a figment of Geoffrey’s wild imagination, or was the Historia an ambitious new venture that would change the course of historical thought in medieval Britain? While as much controversy and debate still surrounds Geoffrey’s magnum opus as it did when it was originally published, one cannot ignore the enduring popularity of the tale and its resounding impact on British culture from the medieval era through to the present day.
Geoffrey of Monmouth and His Appetite for History
The Historia Regum Britanniae began circulating among British scholars in the years 1135 to 1136, just after Stephen of Blois had taken up the English throne after the death of his uncle, Henry I. Geoffrey’s work very quickly became immensely popular, not only amongst other historians and scholars, but also in the learned and noble classes, including the uppermost aristocrats and royalty.
At the time Geoffrey was writing, there had been a resurgence in the popularity of narrative histories, particularly among the Norman nobility. As a result, historical writing began to be produced in Norman churches across all of Britain. Wealthy patrons took an interest in their nation’s history and sponsored the production of these texts, Geoffrey himself had some very high-profile patrons including Robert, Earl of Gloucester, illegitimate son of King Henry I, and also King Stephen himself, to whom Geoffrey dedicated some copies of his work.
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Geoffrey’s Historia was also written at a time of great political tension between contenders for succession of Henry I’s throne. Henry I left no legitimate son to inherit the crown, after his son William Adelin died in the infamous White Ship disaster in which nearly 300 people drowned during a crossing from Normandy to England. The crown therefore passed to his nearest male relative, his nephew Stephen.
Henry I’s daughter however, Matilda, declared herself Holy Roman Empress and set about gathering supporters to challenge Stephen’s claim to the throne. When Stephen was crowned in 1135, it began the long civil war between himself and Matilda that would come to be known as “ The Anarchy ”, which would continue for most of his reign, only ending in 1153 before Stephen’s death the following year.
Modern scholars of Geoffrey’s work believe it possible that Historia it could in fact have been written as a sort of cautionary tale for the contenders of Henry I’s throne. King Henri I of England can be seen on the left and Matilda on the right. ( Public domain )
An Antidote to Anarchy: Geoffrey’s Historia As Entertainment
During the 12th century there was a revival of intellectual pursuits by the new religious orders such as the Cluniac Benedictines. Under King Stephen’s reign, the revival expanded to include growing numbers of secular clerics like Geoffrey of Monmouth, who began writing histories which had previously been a pursuit only for the monks. History became entertainment and narrative histories were written with the intent to appeal to a wider variety of audiences, to amuse and enthrall them with dramatic tales of battles, romance and heroic deeds.
Geoffrey’s work was certainly entertaining, and its lavish, hyperbolic style amused all sorts of audiences, thus ensuring its enduring popularity. In fact, Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain was one of the most widely copied histories of the entire medieval period, with over 215 copies of it surviving to this day, more than even Bede’s famous history of which about 160 copies survive today.
Its entertaining nature also earned the Historia plenty of criticism, some modern commentators labelling it “one of the greatest romantic novels of all time.” Even in its own time, Geoffrey’s work received criticism, for being fanciful and not “serious” history, from other prominent historians like Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury.
There is some evidence that Geoffrey may have intended his work to be an “accurate” history of England. He name-drops respected authors from the past throughout the Historia, particularly St. Gildas (a British historian from the 6th century) and Homer (the famous Greek author of the Iliad and the Odyssey), to lend credibility to his version of events and he also famously claims to have translated the story from an ancient book in the British language. However, hidden underneath this facade of authenticity may be a secondary purpose.
Modern scholars of Geoffrey’s work believe it possible that Historia it could in fact have been written as a sort of cautionary tale for the contenders of Henry I’s throne, Stephen and Matilda. An antidote to anarchy, if you will. Although it should be noted that Geoffrey himself appears to have had no particular political allegiance, his work abounds with tales of rivalries and betrayal between siblings, particularly in contention over a crown, which could be read as parables demonstrating the destructive consequences of civil war upon a kingdom. Perhaps the most well-known example is the story of King Arthur’s betrayal by his nephew Mordred, who usurps his throne and kills him in battle at Camlann.
Depiction of the duel between Sir Mordred, Arthur's villainous illegitimate son, and King Arthur. ( Public domain )
From Romans, to Britons, to Normans
The primary purpose Geoffrey intended for his Historia to perform, however, seems to be less of a moralizing one and more of a political one. In his comprehensive work on Anglo-Latin literature, Arthur Rigg postulates that Geoffrey sought to legitimize the Norman Conquest of England only seven decades earlier in 1066. In Book 9 of the History of the Kings of Britain , Geoffrey tells the tale of King Arthur’s exploits across Europe, conquering most of the Northern nations including France and the former Roman province of Gaul.
It is crucial to note that this part of Europe is where the ancestors of the Britons, the original inhabitants of the land claimed by first the Saxons and then the Normans, originally came from - the province known as Brittany, thus they were named Britons. By detailing King Arthur’s conquest and colonization of the part of Europe from which the Britons and Normans both originated, Geoffrey suggests a common ancestry between the two peoples and so gives the Normans an ancestral claim to ruling British lands.
Geoffrey’s glorification of the “Kings of Britain” therefore, by extension, also glorified the Anglo-Norman monarchy under whose rule Geoffrey lived. The Normans had brought with them to England their own conventions of historiography and revolutionized the way history was written and thought about in medieval England. The Norman view of history was that it had less to do with God’s providence than with the actions of individual humans, and their histories tended to emphasize human control over national history.
The heroes of such histories were much like those of Geoffrey’s Historia: kings and lords like Brutus, Ambrosius or Uther, pinnacles of secular masculinity whose achievements made them worthy of national and international acclaim. The Normans viewed their own heroes in the same light, as men who wore the mantle of authority with ease and demonstrated a potential for violent greatness.
William the Conqueror was held up by the Anglo-Normans as the ideal model of these virtues, described by his biographer, Orderic Vitalis, as a man who “extended by his valor the bounds of the [British] dominion, and raised his people to pitch of greatness surpassing the ties of any of his predecessors.” In many ways, King Arthur is a parallel to William the Conqueror in Geoffrey’s tale - held up as the pinnacle of kingship and manliness, he is the primary hero of Geoffrey’s Historia, and as the presumed ancestor of William the Conqueror, his greatness reflects on that of William himself and his descendants.
A History of Histories
Of course, Geoffrey did not write his story in a void. While the History of the Kings of Britain was certainly groundbreaking for its time, it was not the first narrative written about British history. Geoffrey of Monmouth was simply the next in a line of prolific authors and historians that came before him, although his work was perhaps more ambitious than other works that had previously defined the British peoples’ ideas about their own origins and history.
Geoffrey’s history traces the origins of the British peoples back to Aeneas and the fall of Troy, claiming that the Britons are descended from Aeneas’ great-grandson, Brutus, who settled the island known as Albion and renamed it Britain after himself. It then follows the course of British history through to the death of the last British king, Cadwallader, in the 7th century, after which the Britons were driven out of England into Wales and Cornwall, where they remained in Geoffrey’s time.
Despite criticisms of Geoffrey’s historical method, and his own claims to have used an ancient book of the Britons, the Historia was actually a well-researched piece of work. Geoffrey used a wide variety of respectable sources, from genealogies of Welsh kings to ancient Celtic lore, Roman heroic poetry and histories, and of course the most respected historians of the British Isles: Gildas, Bede and Nennius.
Medieval British historical thought was heavily influenced by Roman writers, both by poetry like Virgil’s Aeneid (written about Aeneas of Troy), and by scholars such as the 4th century theologian Augustine of Hippo. Of greater influence however, was the “father” of British history, St Gildas. Gildas wrote his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (translating into “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”) in the 6th century, only a hundred years or so after the Romans had left Britain and the conquest of the Saxons began. Although it was not intended to be a history in the usual sense of the word, by virtue of fate Gildas’ work was the only substantial narrative text to survive from this period of Britain’s history, and so came to be known as the definitive authority on the post-Roman period.
Statue of Geoffrey of Monmouth, one of the Circle of Legends made up of six wooden sculptures at Tintern Old Station in Monmouthshire, Wales. (Colin Cheesman / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
The Fathers of British History
Gildas’ De Excidio was a moralizing tale, written as a lamentation of sorts on the loss of Roman “civilization” and Christian ideals in his land. As with most British histories written before Geoffrey of Monmouth’s time, Gildas’ work interpreted history in accordance with theology and often relied on Scripture to explain and understand events and their causation. Bede’s 7th century work, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum , or “Ecclesiastical History of the English People”, follows a similar pattern of telling the story of the British peoples through the lens of Christianity, quoting Bible verse and incorporating many tales of saint’s lives, such as St. Alban and St. Aethelthryth.
The 9th century Historia Brittonum has been attributed to a monk named Nennius, although it was more likely the work of multiple authors. This work breaks away somewhat from the tradition of Christianized histories by incorporating a wider variety of sources. In similar fashion to Geoffrey’s Historia, it uses Celtic folklore as well as scholarly texts such as genealogies and Classical rhetoric.
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The Historia Brittonum is less concerned with moralizing however, and more interested in establishing Britain as a part of world history, equally important as Roman or Biblical history. It is also the first narrative history to give any detail about King Arthur: what kind of a man he was as a leader and as a warrior, most famously listing the twelve battles Arthur fought and won, as dux bellorum or “war leader” rather than as king.
It was only in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain that the character of King Arthur truly materialized and became what we know today. Geoffrey gave Arthur a position and status, as well as a royal lineage that traced back over a thousand years. He gave Britain a hero that could be held up as an icon of patriotism and national glory that would define the identity and national story of the British peoples for hundreds of years. Geoffrey’s Historia would eventually be translated into three different languages and was widely accepted as the ultimate authority on British history until well into the 16th century.
Although Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work is now largely accepted as fictitious, the monopoly that it held over British historical thought for so many centuries makes it impossible to ignore. The influence of Geoffrey’s characters and their stories still hold sway in Western historical imagination, and likely always will because of their significant contribution to Arthurian legend and the important place King Arthur continues to hold in modern people’s imagination about our shared past. Call Geoffrey of Monmouth a fraud if you will, but he is as much a figure of legend as King Arthur himself.
Top image: Geoffrey of Monmouth has gone down in history as the author of one of the most famous pieces of British medieval literature. Source: daseugen / Adobe Stock
By Meagan Dickerson
Brooke, C. 1976. “Geoffrey of Monmouth as a Historian” in Church and Government in the Middle Ages , ed. C. N. L. Brooke, D. E. Luscombe, G. H. Martin and Dorothy Owen. Cambridge University Press.
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Gransden, A. 1974. Historical writing in England, c.550 to c.1307 . Routledge.
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