Thursday, 3 March 2016

The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

King Arthur by Peter of Langtoft (1300).
From reading (and enjoying) Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 A.D.) I went straight into The History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae) written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1136. I must admit when I first came across it I thought it would be another history, but "pseudohistory" would be a more appropriate description as The History of the Kings of Britain is concerned largely with the legendary and mythical kings of Britain.

The book is divided into eight parts:
  • Part I: Brutus occupies the Island of Albion
  • Part II: Before the Romans came
  • Part III: The Coming of the Romans
  • Part IV: The House of Constantine
  • Part V: The Prophecies of Merlin
  • Part VI: The House of Constantine (continued)
  • Part VII: Arthur of Britain
  • Part VIII: The Saxon Domination
It begins,
Britain, the best of islands, is situated in the Western Ocean, between France and Ireland. It stretches for eight hundred miles in length and for two hundred in breadth. It provides in unfailing plenty everything that is suited to the use of human beings. It abounds in every kind of mineral. It has broad fields and hillsides which are suitable for the most intensive farming and in which, because of the richness of the soil, all kinds of crops are grown in their seasons. It also has open woodlands which are filled with every kind of game. Through its forest glades stretch pasture-lands which provide the various feeding-stuffs needed by cattle, and there too grow flowers of every hue which offer their honey to the flitting bees. At the foot of its windswept mountains it has meadows green with grass, beauty-spots where clear springs flow into shining streams which ripple gently and murmur an assurance of deep sleep to those lying on their banks.
He goes on to give an account of the first king of Britain, Brutus (1240 B.C.), the great-grandson of Aeneas (his story is told in Virgil's Aeneid among others), who arrived in Britain with his men following his banishment from Italy (for accidentally killing his father). He defeated the only inhabitants of what was then known as Albion (giants), and he established the capital on the banks of the Thames - Troia Nova (the 'New Troy'), now known as London.

After Brutus' death his three sons, Locrinus, Kamber and Albanactus, divide the kingdom between them into Loegria (England, with the exception of Cornwall and Northumberland), Kambria (Wales) and Albany (Scotland). Geoffrey then writes briefly on the descendants of Locrinus, mentioning in particular Bladud who attempted to fly with artificial wings. Bladud was the father of King Leir (I wrote about King Leir and William Shakespeare's play King Lear more in depth a few days ago - that post is here). In short, King Leir, who ruled for sixty years (in the 8th Century B.C.), was the last male descendent of Brutus. Geoffrey writes of his daughters Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla and on how Cordeilla succeeded Leir and ruled for five years before her suicide. Marganus and Cunedagius, the sons of Gonorilla and Regan, become kings however Cunedagius kills Marganus and is the sole ruler. He is succeeded by his son Rivallo.

Arthur (1385 tapestry).
Geoffrey of Monmouth goes on to write about the kings of Britain noting their heroic (or not so heroic) deeds and sayings, and he eventually reaches the Roman invasion, which was led by Julius Caesar (in 55 and 54 B.C.) and gives accounts of the kings of Britain during Roman occupation (including Cunobeline, whose history William Shakespeare wrote on in Cymbeline, 1611). One of the most interesting parts of the book is the final parts that deal with the legendary King Arthur and the prophecies of Merlin (Geoffrey dates this to the 5th and 6th Centuries A.D.), for example his (Merlin's) allusion to the Norman conquest of the 11th Century. A lot of this is new to me - incredibly we barely touched upon British myth and legend at school and it's not something I've really picked up on until now. As with Bede, because much of this is new it's hard to write about it all in a blog post, but I would say it has spurred me on to read more, especially now Arthurian legend, which I must confess I'd never taken a real interest in. 

Though The History of the Kings of Britain is primarily on myths and legends and much has no real basis in facts (indeed for many of these kings there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest they even existed), it is still a very worthy read and I really loved reading it. This book is central to what is known as the 'Matter of Britain' - the legendary kings and heroes of the British Isles and I'm already on the look out for more. Until then, I plan on reading Shakespeare's Cymbeline again, and, on the subject of Arthur, Jean suggested I read Chrétien de Troyes, so in the next few weeks or month I plan on reading the Arthurian Romances.


  1. Oh, I just love this stuff. I find it so fascinating! I'm very fond of Geoffrey. It was the fashion to have your country founded by a Trojan prince, just like the Romans, so a Trojan prince we shall have.

    1. It is fascinating - really it opened up a whole new world and a new perspective on ol' England. Loved it! :)

  2. I loved Geoffrey of Monmouth! I had to read this for an Arthurian module I was doing at university and I thought it was fantastic! I did wind up my friend who was doing a history degree by claiming that I believed it all as fact though. A book to truly treasure.

    1. Most definitely, such an amazing book :)


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