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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’.

But none of this is ‘in reality’, and the only thing that melts away is our confidence in any further assertions based on this idée fixe . And these come thick and fast, as Dr Russell launches into a discussion of Geoffrey’s description of the division of Britain after Brutus’s death into Cambria (Wales), Loegria (England) and Albany (Scotland). Whatever various ancient tribal histories Geoffrey may have used, he endeavoured always to expand the stories outwards to become, albeit anachronistically, stories about conflicts between England, Wales and Scotland. But Dr Russell wants the whole pre-Roman history to be an adaption of histories focussed on the Catuvellauni and the Trinovantes tribes, so he tries (p. 88-9) to argue that ‘the probability is that the original name-form [for Cambria] was Cantium [Kent]’ and that ‘Loegria’ meant ‘those over the border’ so it was (he argues) a term used by the Catuvellauni for the Trinovantes. ‘Albany’, he adds, ‘causes more etymological headaches’; having tried a few theories he admits that ‘quite how this relates to the tribal framework of southern Britain is unclear’ but, determined to make this round peg fit into his square hole, he suggests ‘it could be that the term is substituted for the Iceni’ –  and then adds ‘it is not clear how the name-form could easily mutate from Iceni to Albany’. There is no fulfilment here of the promise made a few page back that ‘the geographical and geopolitical uncertainties of Geoffrey’s narrative [will] melt away’. Once he becomes stuck in this mire, Dr Russell never gets out again.

This is a great shame, because like Dr Russell I agree that there is great potential in finding genuinely old material to be excavated from Geoffrey’s History. The problem for the excavator is not so much finding material, as proving that it predates Geoffrey himself and then showing a plausible link to what we now know from other sources about ancient Britain. Amongst the very few pre-Roman conquest written sources we have that can possibly help here are coins that include some tribal kings’ names, that appear to have been minted between the first century BC and Claudius’s conquest in AD 43, as knowledge of Roman culture began to seep across the Channel. Dr Russell brings his extensive knowledge of this subject to bear by seeking comparison between the names of some of Geoffrey’s pre-Roman kings and those found on coins. There are two problems here, though: first, if a name seems to appear in both sources, how do we know that Geoffrey did not himself see an ancient coin and borrow a name from it? If so, then his use of a name which also appears on a coin cannot be used as proof that he was using genuinely old material. Secondly, and more seriously in this case, even if we accept that the name of one of Geoffrey’s pre-Roman kings is the same as that found on a coin, and that the name in Geoffrey’s case is drawn from a genuinely old source, how can we possibly know that the man named on the coin, and the man named in Geoffrey’s History , are one and the same?  One could not make such an assumption with Roman coins, where Julius Caesar’s coins bear the same inscription, CAESAR as those minted by various predecessors and namesakes of his, or indeed in later English history, where we have had four Williams, three Richards, eight Henrys and so on.

A summary of my own attempts so far at ‘unlocking the histories’ appears in chapter 16 of my Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors . It is based not in numismatics but in my experience as a genealogist, studying the way my predecessors in ancient Greece and Rome, and later in Dark Ages Wales, Ireland and Scotland tried to create lengthy histories for their countries by taking different pedigrees, laying them end-to-end, splicing them together and claiming they represented one coherent genealogical line. The Roman historians did this with the pedigree of the kings of Alban Longa, for instance, to create a pre-history for Rome stretching back to Aeneas of Troy. As you work through Geoffrey’s pre-Roman history, it’s easy to pick out the several distinct breaks and changes in style that betray the splices. Each section may once have been a stand-alone origin myth or tribal history and each should be considered on its own merits and not identified according to any pre-existing idée fixe . But, having identified strands of pedigrees, we must respect the relative positions of individuals within them. For this reason I think Dr Russell errs in picking out

individual kings and considering them out of the context of the section of pedigree to which they belong. So, for instance, even though in Geoffrey’s History Dunwallo Molmutius starts a fresh line of kings coming down to Cassivellaunus, Dr Russell equates him unhesitatingly with a late Iron Age king Dumbobellaunus who is known to have lived soon after Cassivellaunus, and who was for a time resident in Rome (a distinction never claimed for Dunwallo). Similarly, Rud Hud Hudibras is considered out of context of his immediate genealogical predecessors and successors, who had primarily West Country connections, and becomes identified, though ‘the closest comparison to the sound-form’(!) with Addedomarus who lived in the south-east, again, soon after Cassivellaunus. These and other attempts at identification are unconvincing on several levels, not least because they do not take into account their genealogical relationships to each other within Geoffrey’s text and thus (we should assume) within the sources on which he drew.

For what it is worth, my view (in Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors ) was that the main components of the section after Brutus and down to the Roman invasion were more likely to be, first, a tribal history concerning the Durotriges and Dobunni in south-west Britain (hence Rud Hud Hudibras’s  link to Shaftesbury, etc); followed quite separately by a history of the Catuvellauni tribe both before and after they came from Belgic Gaul to settle in Hertfordshire.

Regardless of the different the theories we have each proposed, both Dr Russell and I have emphasised that our theories can only ever be that; in the absence of some sudden new discovery of some genuinely ancient text which corroborates any of Geoffrey’s pre-Roman history, ‘there is much’, as Dr Russell writes (p. 78) ‘that is unknown and, in the context of pre-Roman Britain, ultimately unknowable’.

The myth of Brutus of Troy as the founding king of Britain appears first in Nennius’s Historia Brittonum in the AD 800s and then in Geoffrey’s History, which immortalised him as a great grandson (not a grandson, as stated in the cover blurb of Dr Russell’s book) of Trojan Aeneas. Dr Russell and I agree that Brutus’s myth began sometime before Nennius, but we disagree on how far. Dr Russell asks (p. 17) ‘can a place for the story [of Brutus] be found in prehistoric Britain?’ and follows ideas mooted (but unfortunately never proved) by John Creighton in his book Coins and Power (Cambridge University Press, 2000), that the Brutus story arose when the southern British tribes were first in contact with Rome, as an attempt by its rulers to place themselves on a par with Caesar, who believed himself to be a descendant of Aeneas. It was an attractive idea then as now, but Dr Russell brings no new evidence to the table. References to a British Brutus myth remain uncorroborated by Roman sources. Dr Russell himself describes (p. 63) the Classical motifs which appear on late Iron Age coins, which omit anything which could remotely suggest an interest in Trojan origins. If the late Iron Age Britons wanted to believe they had Trojan roots, why did they not depict Aeneas leaving Troy with Ascanius and Anchises, an image which was very familiar in the Roman world, and why did they depict ‘Roman deities (like Neptune, Mars and Apollo)’, but failed to emulate Caesar by depicting Aeneas’s mother Venus?

In Brutus of Troy I explored the idea of the Brutus myth having arisen in Roman times, and concluded that evidence is lacking. However, I was able to present a fresh and (I believe) coherent argument that Brutus’s name arose out of an early Dark Age etiological process with clear roots in the tradition of Josephus, Hippolytus, Isidore of Seville et al , which assumed a founder of Britain (Brito, as Nennius calls him, later altered to Brutus) out of Britain’s name alone, and then worked up a story for him. Nennius reveals the early stages of the process and also shows us that Brutus’s appeal lay in the genealogical bridge he and his Trojan ancestors created between the British and the family of Noah. All this belongs firmly in the Dark Ages, and precludes any realistic likelihood that Brutus’s story, as we know it from Nennius or Geoffrey, being of Roman or pre-Roman origin, however attractive that idea may seem. 

Part of Brutus’s story involves his dealings with another Trojan leader, Corineus. Dr Russell argues that Corineus’s myth sits awkwardly in Brutus’s story and that, originally ( p. 75) ‘his alternative saga… may not actually have mentioned Brutus at all’. That is in complete concord with my Brutus of Troy , in which I wrote (p. 87) that Geoffrey’s stories of the Trojans’ adventures in Gaul ‘might not, originally, have been about Brutus at all. Had Geoffrey simply copied out an older story about Corineus… and simply inserted a few references to Brutus into it?’. Having agreed on this, we disagree over the origin of Corineus myth. Dr Russell suggests (p. 75) that Brutus’s story was a foundation myth of the late Iron Age Trinovantes, and that Corineus’s story was an alternative Trojan foundation myth invented by the neighbouring Catuvellauni, ‘to set them on a par with the Romans’. But he only makes this assertion because of his idée fixe that all Geoffrey’s material originated with the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes, and he does not explore Corineus’s story any further for any specific internal evidence which might link it to the Catuvellauni – and, indeed, there is none.

My analysis of the myth in Brutus of Troy proposed that Corineus had been turned into a Trojan by Geoffrey, having previously been (as Geoffrey’s text still suggests) a Herculean figure, perhaps actually a son of Hercules himself, fathered during the hero’s 10 th labour, the stealing of Geryon’s cattle from Spain (which is where Brutus first encounters him), and that it may have been a foundation myth of a tribe in south-west Britain (where Geoffrey says Corineus settled). For Dr Russell’s theory to work, Corineus would have to be uprooted from Cornwall and moved all the way to Hertfordshire, which makes little sense. But these differences over the specifics should not cloud the important fact that, coming at the Corineus problem quite independently, we are both convinced that his myth is a genuinely old one, and not something which Geoffrey made up: and if so, then it constitutes a potential new source to take into account when considering Britain’s origin myths.  

If we accept, as Dr Russell and I do, that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text contains genuinely ancient material, much fun is to be had teasing it out. By proceeding slowly and carefully, and in collaboration, it is possible that in time some agreement may be established over what that genuinely ancient material may have been, and even how it might be interpreted, and what it could possibly tell us about the way our Iron Age British ancestors thought about themselves, their ancestry and their origins, at the time of their first contact with Rome.