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Geoffrey of Monmouth

"One historian [Nennius] tells of these battles, and the places where they were fought, though none of the places can be identified now. I think that this has happened by the providence of God, so that popular favour, adulatory praise, and transitory fame might be set at nought."

Henry of Huntington, Historia Anglorum

Fifty years after the Norman Conquest, there was a strong interest in the history of Britain, and twelfth-century chroniclers, such as William of Malmesbury (Gesta Regum Anglorum, 1125) and Henry of Huntington (Historia Anglorum, 1139), wrote long and ambitious histories dedicated to their patrons. Romance also increasingly influenced the historiography of the time, and there was a penchant for legends and anecdotes, clever ruses and amusing stories. It is Henry who first wrote of Henry I having died from eating too many lampreys, taking his theme from Ovid's Amores that men strive for that which is forbidden (III.4.17). He also tells the edifying story of Canute commanding the tide not to rise to illustrate the king's awareness that his power was vain and frivolous.

Writing to please these same men, Geoffrey of Monmouth created a very different type of history. The Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain") was completed sometime before 1139 (1136 or 1138 usually is mentioned), when Henry of Huntington, who was archdeacon of the diocese in which Geoffrey lived, was amazed to discover a copy in Normandy. Until the sixteenth century, it was regarded as the standard history of ancient Britain. And, yet, Geoffrey only pretends to write history and actually admonishes both William and Henry not to say anything about the early British kings, as they know nothing about them, not having the "certain very ancient book" setting forth their deeds that he has translated as his own history. In spite of this appeal to authority, much of what he writes is from his own imagination (he is the first, for example, to tell the story of King Lear).

Geoffrey also reflects the contemporary ideas and values of his Anglo-Norman patrons. Just as the Romans could claim descent from Aeneas, so Brutus, another exile from Troy, settled in Britain, after whom the country was named. Descended from classical ancestors, the kings of Britain were, themselves, heroic figures. It is the Britons who defeat the Romans and sack Rome. Although driven out by the Anglo-Saxons, Arthur eventually will return from Avalon as Merlin has prophesied. The Britons having migrated to Brittany, it is the Bretons who are heirs to this glorious past, not the defeated Anglo-Saxons or rebellious Welsh.

The Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, was supported by one of his patrons, so Geoffrey praises women rulers and abuses perjurers (Stephen had sworn to support her claim to the throne). A king such as Arthur is perceived to be a law-maker (as was Henry I, Matilda's father) and a builder of good roads (the construction of which Geoffrey takes from Henry of Huntington) and fine buildings (such as the Tower of London), as were the Anglo-Normans.

The conventions of courtly romance and its tales of heroism, war, and love proved so entertaining that the Historia became one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages. Imaginatively weaving together the earlier accounts of Gildas, Nennius, and Bede, Geoffrey provided the subject matter for a subsequent flowering of Arthurian romance. The Norman poet Wace paraphrased Geoffrey in Le Roman de Brut (completed by 1155). Its adaptation by Layamon in Brut (c.1200) became the first account of the Arthurian legend in English.

Monmouth is in southeastern Wales. The thirteenth-century fortified bridge gate leading into town is pictured above.

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