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Cunobeline: The Historical King Who Inspired Shakespeare's Cymbeline

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To write his plays, William Shakespeare looked for inspiration in a wide variety of sources, including myths, history, and popular stories of his day. Among Shakespeare’s inspirations were two ancient British kings. Of the two kings, King Lear is completely mythical. His biography is partially based on Leir of Britain, a legendary British monarch whose story Geoffrey of Monmouth recorded in his pseudohistorical 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (“History of the Kings of Britain”). Geoffrey's genealogy of the British dynasty dates Leir's rule to the 8th century BC, about the period of Rome's establishment. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth at Tintern Station. (Colin Cheesman / CC BY-SA 2.0) 

The other king, Cymbeline, was loosely modelled on a real king named Cunobeline who ruled for about forty years in the south-east of Britain.  Historia Regum Britanniae referred to him as Kymbelinus, son of Tenvantius, who was raised at the court of the Roman Emperor Augustus. Raphael Holinshed's 157 Chronicles also briefly describes Kymbelinus as an extraordinary soldier and powerful ruler whose allegiance to the Romans was so deep that he willingly paid tribute when he could have refused. By contrast, his eldest son, Guiderius, flatly refused to pay homage to the Romans. Angered by this refusal, Emperor Claudius attacked Britain.  

Unfortunately, the authorities for the period of Cymbeline’s rule are the somewhat untrustworthy old English chronicles that Shakespeare would have read and Roman authors who, although they provide us with facts, never provided enough of them for a satisfactory study. Important archaeological finds from this period are rare, much rarer than Roman ones, which explains the great interest in each recent discoveries such as an excavation at Hertford Heath revealing a burial from Cunobeline's reign and territory – the grave was likely of one of Cunobeline’s family member or tribal chieftains. 

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By Martini Fisher 

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Martini Fisher comes from a family of history and culture buffs. She graduated from Macquarie University, Australia, with a degree in Ancient History. Although her interest in history is diverse, Martini is especially interested in  mythologies, folklores and ancient funerary... Read More

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