Fact or Fiction? Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Historia Regum Britanniae" (1136-1138)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


1. Introduction

Konig Artus lebt![1] As the title of Stefan Zimmer’s book illustrates, the fame of the English myth around King Arthur and his deeds seem to be as alive today as when his first reports appeared. The vast literary canon connected to the Arthurian legend alone proves its omnipresence and importance. Arthur’s merits are primarily known thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth (~1100-1155), one of “the Fathers of Arthurian literature”[2], who published his Latin best-seller Historia Regum Britanniae[3] [4], the History of the Kings of Britain, in the Anglo-Norman period, between 1136[5] and 1138[6]. Another major milestone in connection with Arthur is “the discovery of Arthur’s remains at Glastonbury Abbey, in 1191.[7] ” Those twelfth century events contributed to Arthur’s popularity and had “[...] such an impact on contemporary minds that Arthur acquired a reality and a dimension that he had never had before”[8].

This paper focuses on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s literary legacy. Little is certain about Geoffrey of Monmouth’s life[9] and even the scarce details that exist are not necessarily reliable. He probably originated from Monmouth and thus paid homage to his birthplace through his name. Geoffrey’s exact date of birth is unknown, but some sources suggest that he died in 1155. Interestingly, he used his father’s name, Arthur, at the beginning of his career[10]. Therefore, his alias already showed a link to the legend of the famous warrior king, he later on wrote about. Geoffrey was ordained bishop in Saint Asaph and Lambeth[11] and taught as magister at Oxford .[12] Moreover, Geoffrey was said to be part British, because he paints a positive image of the Bretons in his Historia[13]. His literary career was based on three major works: The Prophecies of Merlin, The History of the Kings of Britain, and The Life of Merlin, which he later on incorporated in his Historia. Whether Geoffrey wrote parts of the Book of Llandaff is still an ongoing debate[14]. By all means, the Historians reputation made it known as one of the most important books of the Middle Ages.

Geoffrey’s work is subdivided into twelve books and covers the rise and fall of the kings of Britain: beginning with Brutus’s settlement on the island around 1200 BC and ending with Cadwallader’s death in the year 698 AD[15]. According to Lewis Thorpe, the Historia focuses mainly on three kings and their deeds: Brutus, Belinus and Arthur[16]. Geoffrey dedicates the longest chapter of his work effectively to Arthur and in this way fosters the growth of the legend. Since the Historians appearance, Geoffrey’s work has been admired and has changed the way Britons perceived themselves and the way they are looked at. More than 200 handwritings [17], as well as translations into English and French [18], illustrate its far reaching influence and popularity. The following quotation demonstrates its positive reception, as well as possible readings:

As romanticized history [...], as a source-book for the imaginative writing of others, as an inspiration for poetry, drama and romantic fiction down the centuries, it has had few if any equals in the whole history of European literature[19].

Nonetheless, many generations have argued and tried to figure out how reliable Geoffrey’s Historia really is. The title alone suggests that Geoffrey regards his work as historiography which the majority of his contemporaries reinforced. Due to the popularity amongst his fellow chroniclers and authors, his legacy served as the “channel [20] ” through which the myth was handed down to Wace, Chretien de Troyes and many others who incorporated Geoffrey’s account in their works and shaped the image of Arthur until today.

However, since the 16th century, literary critics have denounced the Historia as pseudo­history, as a fictional work.

This paper tries to answer the question in how far Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae can be regarded on the one hand as trustworthy historiography and on the other hand as fiction. In a first step, Geoffrey’s motivation to write the Historia and his sources shall be described. Secondly, the Historians centerpiece, King Arthur’s reign, will be examined in terms of how Geoffrey shapes the legend. In the following, the elements and voices which support the Historians being a historical work will be discussed. Geoffrey’s own claim, as well as references throughout the book to historic figures and real places, speaks for the work’s reliability. Until the 16th century, Geoffrey’s account had become a bestseller which most of his fellow writers incorporated into their works. In a fourth step, the points of Geoffrey’s critics who received the Historia as fiction shall be taken a closer look at. Some of Geoffrey’s fellow historians were already skeptical about his monumental success, though their reasoning and methods were not as developed as the modern ones which will be presented in a last step. The conclusion finally tries to summarise the findings and to underline the Historians importance.

2. Historia Regum Britanniae (1136-1138) - a true account?

In order to investigate the central question of the Historians reliability, various points will be taken into account. Before discussing the arguments that speak in favour and against the Historia being a true account, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s purpose to write his piece and the sources he employs, as well as the way he develops the Arthurian matter, will be looked at.

2.1. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s motivation and his sources

The Historians Epistle Dedicatory to Robert, Earl of Gloucester, introduces the reader to the author’s motivation and the sources he draws on. Geoffrey describes his search of a worthwhile topic and how he, out of a patriotic desire, decides to write “a history of the Kings of Britain” (Monmouth, Epistle Dedicatory l. 2f). Unlike Bede and Gildas, who are concerned with the reigns of later kings[21], Geoffrey aims at covering Britain’s early history before the birth of Christ, as well as Arthur’s reign and the kings who succeed him (cf. Monmouth, Epistle Dedicatory l. 6-8). Geoffrey expresses his surprise that though the contemporary oral tradition keeps the image of those kings alive; a written account of their “deeds [...] worthy of praise everlasting” (Monmouth, Epistle Dedicatory l. 8) has not yet been undertaken. Hence, his chronology intends to portray Britain’s glorious past, which can undoubtedly compete with the accomplishments of other great nations.

When Geoffrey begins writing his piece, the succession of King Henry I. and Britain’s role in the world was being discussed. Historically, England was submitted to the yoke of France: “as dukes of Normandy they were vassals of the French kings as heirs of Charlemagne”[22]. Therefore, Geoffrey possibly not only tries to create a national identity of which his fellow countrymen can be proud of, but also an account that proves Britain’s supremacy over France. Lewis Thorpe believes that Geoffrey’s inspiration is mainly a patriotic one, “to put the Britons in their place in the forefront of history” (10), as well as Robert Cadwell and John Parry, who describe Geoffrey as supporting “the English kings in their effort to assert their independence of the kings of France”[23]. The latter share the opinion that the Historians glorification of the past, of rulers who defeat the French in several instances and of the omnipotent warrior-king Arthur, conveys that “the French kings should be subject to those of England”[24].

Christopher Dean argues contrarily that Geoffrey’s five dedicatees[25] are of Norman descent for which he tries to please the French, rather than showing himself loyal to his people: “he would have seen no profit for himself as a Welsh patriot”[26]. Having said that, Ad Putter remarks that the French rulers showed interest in the country they conquered for which Geoffrey, as above mentioned, “[invents] a proud past for Britain before the invasions of foreign races” [27]. In spite of those different interpretations of Geoffrey’s motivation, Geoffrey certainly presents a pro-British propaganda which contributed to the building of a nation.

Whether Geoffrey’s work is a true and an empirical study on the kings of Britain is an ongoing debate. Even today, scholars discuss about the sources Geoffrey employs. As a matter of fact, he fuses various sources of which some are believed more reliable than others.

His most important historical source seems to have been the mystical prehistory of Nennius who is said to have written the Historia Brittonum[28]. Moreover, Geoffrey draws on Bede’s and Gildas’ accounts[29], the Welsh genealogies, ancient Celtic mythology and the oral tradition[30].

The Historians main source is “a certain most ancient book in the British language” (Monmouth, Epistle Dedicatory, l. 13) that Geoffrey’s esteemed friend Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, asked him to translate into Latin. To stress his work being up and foremost a translation, Geoffrey mentions Walter’s book in two further instances (Book XI and XII). In the eleventh book of the Historia, shortly before Arthur’s crucial battle against Modred is related, Geoffrey points out Walter’s respected position in society with which he intends to prove the reliability of his own undertaking:

Of the matter now to be treated of [...] briefly relate what he found in the British book above mentioned, and heard from that most learned historian, Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford [.] (Monmouth, Book XI., Chapter i., l. 1-4)

Moreover, Geoffrey reminds his contemporary historians in his final reference that he cannot be criticised for his account because no one else possesses his source: seeing that they have not that book in the British speech which Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, did convey hither out of Brittany, the which being truly issued in honour of the aforesaid princes, I have on this wise been at the pains of translating into the Latin speech. (Monmouth, Book XII, Chapter xix., l. 4-8)

Most scholars agree that Geoffrey’s ancient source is of dubious historical context. As there is no proof whatsoever of the existence of Walter’s book, the question poses if the account is invented and if the work can thus be regarded a true account. Whether Geoffrey’s source existed or not is a matter of speculation, but the far reaching influence of the Historia is a fact. The way the work shapes and develops the Arthurian seems to be worth discussing.

2.2. Shaping of the Arthurian legend

Geoffrey’s Historia circulates around King Arthur and his merits which can be seen in the fact alone that Arthur’s prehistory and history occupies approximately half of the work. The long series of kings described culminates in Arthur’s reign and is announced by Merlin’s prophecies. The prophet informs Uther that he will have “a most potent son, to whose power all those kingdoms shall be subject over which the ray reaches” (Monmouth, Book VII, Chapter xv., l. 15f). Walter Schirmer reaffirms that the Historia contains two poles, namely the prophecies of Merlin and the reign of Arthur, which are connected by joined threads[31]. The prophecies appear to be a matter of destiny and hence, legitimate Arthur’s reign.

The earlier sources barely discuss Arthur and often contradict themselves[32]. Gildas’ De excidio et conquest Britanniae (540/545) does not yet refer to Arthur, but to his uncle Ambrosius Aurelianus, and Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum borrows his predecessor’s version unaltered[33] Nennius’ Historia Brittonum (~ 800 AD) mentions Arthur for the first time and introduces him as a war leader, a dux bellorum[34]. Further sources, regarded reliable at the time and which show traces of Arthur’s existence, are the Annales Cambria, containing lives of saints, and early 14th century Latin texts[35].

On the whole, details about Arthur are scarce; therefore, Geoffrey’s main merit is his detailed description of the historical Arthur. Michael Curley believes that Geoffrey answers “William of Malmesbury’s claim about the absence of veraces historiae concerning Arthur”[36]. The success of the Arthurian matter is surprising if one takes into account that Arthur technically is a bastard: he is an illegitimate child conceived out of an adulterous act.[37]

At this birth, he is already presented as “the most renowned Arthur, whose heroic and wonderful actions have justly rendered his name famous to prosperity” (Monmouth, Book VII., Chapter xix, l. 82f). Furthermore, the Norman castle Tintagel in which he grows up is a symbol of power, as it cannot be taken by force. Arthur’s protected childhood ends abruptly at the age of 15, when he is crowned king. At the time, Britain is at the greatest distress and in need of a war leader. As a matter of fact, Arthur possesses all the characteristics needed for a true king: generosity, courage and valour[38]. Indeed, his career assumes the climax of the Historia, based on the fact that he brings his country to its biggest fame[39].

Beginning with Arthur’s coronation, the king “[forms] a design for the conquest of all Europe” (Monmouth, Book IX., Chapter xi., l. 14f) which he accomplishes and at the end of the reign even rivals Rome[38] [39] [40]. Curley’s subdivision of Arthur’s reign shows the conquering motive employed throughout:

(1) The reconquest of Britain and neighboring islands;
(2) The campaigns in Norway, Denmark, and Gaul;
(3) Arthur’s Plenary Court at Pentecost;
(4) Victory over the Romans in Gaul;
(5) The Battle of Camblan[41]

At the climax of Arthur’s reign, Britain was “a pitch of grandeur, that in abundance of riches, luxury of ornaments, and politeness of inhabitants, [...] far surpassed all other kingdoms” (Monmouth, Book IX, Chapter xiii, l. 34-36). Arthur’s downfall is ultimately led about, when Arthur prepares for the war against the Romans and entrusts the government of Britain to his traitorous nephew Modred.

Arthur’s victories as a warrior king and his seeking of an empire are in the center of attention, which could be due to the fact that in the 12th century “secular glory and military success went hand in hand”[42]. Geoffrey admires military conquest and draws parallels between Arthur’s wars and Alexander the Great’ s conquests abroad, as well as comparing Arthur to “a very grandiose version of Henry I.”[43] [44] This could explain why details about the private Arthur are sparse in Geoffrey’s Historia; “equally missing are all the civil aspects [.] [Arthur is] not presented as a lawmaker [...] [; but as someone who is] administrative rather than pious”[45]. However, while Nennius mainly stresses Arthur’s accomplishments as a warrior, Geoffrey adds the reason for his battles[46], their lengths[47] and the names of his opponents[48] [49].


[1] Cf. Zimmer, Stefan. Konig Artus lebt!. Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag Winter, 2005. Print.

[2] The other ,father‘ refers to Chretien de Troyes who established Arthurian Romance. Cf. Putter, Ad. “The Twelfth-Century Arthur.“ Arthurian Legend. Eds. Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 36. Print.

[3] Cf. Monmouth, Geoffrey of. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. with an intro by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth/New York/Victoria/Markham/Auckland: Penguin Books Ltd., 1966. Print.

[4] In the following, Geoffrey’s work will be referred to as Historia.

[5] Michael J. Curley argues that he must have started writing before 1135; cf. Curley, Michael J. Geoffrey of Monmouth. New York: Twayne Publishers, 7. Print.

[6] Stefan Zimmer states that many, but not all, literary critics agree that Geoffrey’s work was published in 1138; cf. Zimmer 10.

[7] Dean, Christopher. Arthur of England - English Attitudes to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Toronto/Buffalo/London: University of Toronto Press, 1987. 3. Print.

[8] Dean 3.

[9] The following biographic information is taken from Michael J. Curley’s Geoffrey of Monmouth, 1-5.

[10] Cf. Curley 1.

[11] Cf. Curley 5: “Geoffrey was ordained at Westminster on 16 February 1152 and consecrated bishop of Saint Asaph eight days later at Lambeth by archbishop Theobald”.

[12] Cf. Curley 2: “the title magister probably indicated that Geoffrey taught in one of the Oxford clerical schools of the day, possibly as a secular canon at Saint George’s College [...] where his friends Walter the archdeacon and Robert of Chesney were both associates”.

[13] Cf. Curley 1.

[14] Cf. Ibid.

[15] Cf. Burrichter, Brigitte. Wahrheit und Fiktion - Der Status der Fiktionalitat in der Artusliteratur des 12. Jahrhunderts. Munchen: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1996. 29. Print.

[16] Cf. Thorpe, Lewis. “Introduction.” The History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Harmondsworth: Penguin books, 1966. 17. Print.

[17] Cf. Pahler, Heinrich. Anglistik - Strukturuntersuchungen zur Historia Regum Britanniae des Geoffrey of Monmouth. Bonn: Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms-Universitat, 1958. 19. Print.

[18] Cf. Dean 10f.

[19] Thorpe 28.

[20] Economou, George D. Geoffrey of Monmouth. Toronto/New York: Twayne Publishers, 1942. Economou Preface ix. Print.

[21] Bede’s history began with the Roman invasion. Cf. Crick, Julia C. The ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ of Geoffrey of Monmouth - IV. Dissemination and Reception in the later Middle Ages. Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 1991. 3. Print.

[22] Caldwell Robert A./Parry, John J. “Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae.” Arthur King of Britain - History, Chronicle, Romance & Criticism. Ed. Richard L. Brengle. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964. 342. Print.

[23] Caldwell/Parry 342.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Robert, Earl of Gloucester; Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford; and “early copies were dedicated to King Stephen, the earl of Worcester, the earl of Gloucester, and to the bishop of Lincoln [...]” (Brooke 82). Brooke, Christopher. “Geoffrey of Monmouth as a historian.” Church and Government in the Middle Ages. Eds. C.N.L. Brooke, D.E. Luscombe, G.H.Martin and Dorothy Owen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976. 82. Print.

[26] Dean 7.

[27] Putter 49.

[28] Cf. Fichte, Joerg O. “’Fakt’ und Fiktion in der Artusgeschichte des 12. Jahrhunderts.“Fiktionalitat im Artusroman - Dritte Tagung der Deutschen Sektion der Internationalen Artusgesellschaft. Eds. Volker Mertens und Friedrich Wolfzettel. Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1993. 41. Print; cf. Burrichter 31.

[29] Geoffrey mentions Gildas and Bede at line 4 in his Epistle Dedicatory.

[30] “one of Geoffrey’s main tools in the recovery of Britain’s early history was simply an aggressive revision of earlier authors: Caesar, Gildas, Bede, and Nennius [.] , among others. Combined with Geoffrey’s keen sense of narrative technique and dramatic structure, his revisionist strategies imparted a certain plausibility to his history” (cf. Economou Preface x.).

[31] Cf. Schirmer, Walter F. Die fruhen Darstellungen des Artusstoffes. Koln/Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1958. 13. Print

[32] Cf. Curley 75.

[33] Cf. Burrichter 32.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. Hermann of Laon recounts his journey to Englang in 1113 in which he was confronted with famous Arthurian sights and the strong belief of Arhur’s return.

[36] Curley 76.

[37] Cf. Monmouth , Book VII., Chapter xix.; Uther ‘enjoys’ Igerna, the wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall.

[38] Cf. Monmouth, Book IX., Chapter i.; “a youth of such unparalleled courage and generosity, joined with that sweetness of temper and innate goodness, as gained him universal love.” (Monmouth, Book IX., Chapter i., l. 11f)

[39] At the end, he faces a battle with Rome (cf. Burrichter 46-49).

[40] “rival the grandeur of Rome” (Monmouth, Book IX., Chapter xii., l. 15).

[41] Curley 76.

[42] Curley 76.

[43] Brooke 88.

[44] Cf. Curley 76.

[45] Ibid.

[46] The Saxons besieging Bath (cf. Burrichter 51).

[47] Two days (cf. Ibid).

[48] Colgrinius, Baldulfus and Cheldricus (cf. Burrichter 51).

[49] Cf. Ibid.

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Fact or Fiction? Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Historia Regum Britanniae" (1136-1138)
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Arthurian Chronicles;, Geoffrey of Monmouth;, Pseudohistory;, Historia Regum Brittaniae;, The History of the Kings of Brittain;
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Eliana Briel (Author), 2012, Fact or Fiction? Geoffrey of Monmouth's "Historia Regum Britanniae" (1136-1138), Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/287925


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