Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain),
originally called De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons), is
a pseudohistorical (fictitious) account of British history, written
around 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It chronicles the lives of the
kings of the Britons over the course of two thousand years, beginning
with the Trojans founding the British nation and continuing until the
Anglo-Saxons assumed control of much of Britain around the 7th
century. It is one of the central pieces of the Matter of Britain.
Although credited uncritically well into the 16th century, it is
now considered to have no value as history. When events described,
such as Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain, can be corroborated from
contemporary histories, Geoffrey's account can be seen to be wildly
inaccurate. It remains, however, a valuable piece of medieval
literature, which contains the earliest known version of the story of
King Lear and his three daughters, and helped popularise the legend of
1.2 Book One
1.3 Book Two
1.4 Book Three
1.5 Book Four
1.6 Books Five and Six
1.7 Book Seven: The Prophecies of Merlin
1.8 Book Eight
1.9 Books Nine and Ten
1.10 Books Eleven and Twelve
4 Manuscript tradition and textual history
5 See also
8 External links
Geoffrey starts the book with a statement of his purpose in writing
the history: "I have not been able to discover anything at all on the
kings who lived here before the Incarnation of Christ, or indeed about
Arthur and all the others who followed on after the Incarnation. Yet
the deeds of these men were such that they deserve to be praised for
all time." He claims that he was given a source for this period by
Archdeacon Walter of Oxford, who presented him with a "certain very
ancient book written in the British language" from which he has
translated his history. He also cites
Bede as sources. Then
follows a dedication to Robert, earl of Gloucester and Waleran, count
of Meulan, whom he enjoins to use their knowledge and wisdom to
improve his tale.
The Historia itself begins with the Trojan Aeneas, who according to
Roman legend settled in Italy after the Trojan War. His great-grandson
Brutus is banished, and, after a period of wandering, is directed by
the goddess Diana to settle on an island in the western ocean. Brutus
Totnes and names the island, then called Albion, "Britain"
after himself. Brutus defeats the giants who are the only inhabitants
of the island, and establishes his capital, Troia Nova, on the banks
of the Thames; after his time it is renamed London.
When Brutus dies, his three sons, Locrinus, Kamber and Albanactus,
divide the county between themselves; the three kingdoms are named
Loegria, Kambria (Wales) and Albany (Scotland). The story then
progresses rapidly through the reigns of the descendants of Locrinus,
including Bladud, who uses magic and even tries to fly.
Bladud's son Leir reigns for sixty years. He has no sons, so upon
reaching old age he decides to divide his kingdom among his three
daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. To decide who should get the
largest share, he asks his daughters how much they love him. Goneril
and Regan give extravagant answers, but Cordelia answers simply and
sincerely; angered, he gives Cordelia no land.
Goneril and Regan are
to share half the island with their husbands, the Dukes of Albany and
Cornwall. Cordelia marries Aganippus, King of the Franks, and departs
for Gaul. Soon
Goneril and Regan and their husbands rebel and take the
whole kingdom. After Leir has had all his attendants taken from him,
he begins to regret his actions towards Cordelia and travels to Gaul.
Cordelia receives him compassionately and restores his royal robes and
retinue. Aganippus raises a Gaulish army for Leir, who returns to
Britain, defeats his sons-in-law and regains the kingdom. Leir rules
for three years and then dies; Cordelia inherits the throne and rules
for five years before
Marganus and Cunedagius, her sisters' sons,
rebel against her. They imprison Cordelia; grief-stricken, she kills
Cunedagius divide the kingdom between
themselves, but soon quarrel and go to war with each other. Cunedagius
Marganus in Wales and retains the whole kingdom,
ruling for thirty-three years. He is succeeded by his son.
A later descendant of Cunedagius, King Gorboduc, has two sons called
Ferreux and Porrex. They quarrel and both are eventually killed,
sparking a civil war. This leads to Britain being ruled by five kings,
who keep attacking each other. Dunvallo Molmutius, the son of the King
of Cornwall, becomes pre-eminent. He eventually defeats the other
kings and establishes his rule over the whole island. He is said to
have "established the so-called
Molmutine Laws which are still famous
today among the English".
Belinus and Brennius, fight a civil war before being
reconciled, and proceed to sack Rome. Victorious,
Brennius remains in
Belinus returns to rule Britain.
Numerous brief accounts of successive kings follow. These include Lud,
Trinovantum "Kaerlud" after himself; this later becomes
corrupted to London. Lud is succeeded by his brother, Cassibelanus.
After his conquest of Gaul,
Julius Caesar looks over the sea and
resolves to order Britain to swear obedience and pay tribute to Rome.
His commands are answered by a letter of refusal from Cassivellaunus.
Caesar sails a fleet to Britain, but he is overwhelmed by
Cassivellaunus's army and forced to retreat to Gaul. Two years later
he makes another attempt, but is again pushed back. Then
Cassivellaunus quarrels with one of his dukes, Androgeus, who sends a
letter to Caesar asking him to help avenge the duke's honour. Caesar
invades once more and besieges
Cassivellaunus on a hill. After several
Cassivellaunus offers to make peace with Caesar, and Androgeus,
filled with remorse, goes to Caesar to plead with him for mercy.
Cassivellaunus pays tribute and makes peace with Caesar, who then
returns to Gaul.
Cassivelaunus dies and is succeeded by Androgeus's son Tenvantius, who
is succeeded in turn by his son Kymbelinus, and then Kymbelinus's son
Guiderius refuses to pay tribute to emperor Claudius, who
then invades Britain. After
Guiderius is killed in battle with the
Romans, his brother
Arvirargus continues the defence, but eventually
agrees to submit to Rome, and is given the hand of Claudius's daughter
Genvissa in marriage.
Claudius returns to Rome, leaving the province
under Arviragus's governorship.
The line of British kings continues under Roman rule, and includes
Lucius, Britain's first Christian king, and several Roman figures,
including the emperor Constantine I, the usurper
Allectus and the
military commander Asclepiodotus. After a long period of Roman rule,
the Romans decide they no longer wish to defend the island and depart.
The Britons are immediately besieged by attacks from Picts, Scots and
Danes. In desperation the Britons send letters to the general of the
Roman forces, asking for help, but receive no reply (this passage
borrows heavily from the corresponding section in Gildas' De Excidio
Books Five and Six
After the Romans leave,
Vortigern comes to power, and invites the
Saxons under Hengist and
Horsa to fight for him as mercenaries, but
they rise against him.
Book Seven: The Prophecies of Merlin
At this point Geoffrey abruptly pauses his narrative by inserting a
series of prophecies attributed to Merlin. Some of the prophecies act
as an epitome of upcoming chapters of the Historia, while others are
veiled allusions to historical people and events of the Norman world
in the 11th-12th centuries. The remainder are obscure.
After Aurelius Ambrosius defeats and kills Vortigern, becoming king,
Britain remains in a state of war under him and his brother Uther.
They are both assisted by the wizard Merlin. At one point during the
continuous string of battles, Ambrosius takes ill and Uther must lead
the army for him. This allows an enemy assassin to pose as a physician
and poison Ambrosius. When the king dies, a comet taking the form of a
dragon's head (pendragon) appears in the night sky, which Merlin
interprets as a sign that Ambrosius is dead and that Uther will be
victorious and succeed him. So after defeating his latest enemies,
Uther adds "Pendragon" to his name and is crowned king.
But another enemy strikes, forcing Uther to make war again. This time
he is temporarily defeated, gaining final victory only with the help
Gorlois of Cornwall. But while celebrating this victory with
Gorlois, he falls in love with the duke's wife, Igerna. This leads to
Uther Pendragon and
Gorlois of Cornwall, during which
Uther clandestinely lies with Igerna through the magic of Merlin.
Arthur is conceived that night. Then
Gorlois is killed and Uther
marries Igerna. But he must war against the Saxons again. Although
Uther ultimately triumphs, he dies after drinking water from a spring
the Saxons had poisoned.
Books Nine and Ten
Uther's son Arthur assumes the throne and defeats the Saxons so
severely that they cease to be a threat until after his death. In the
meantime, Arthur conquers most of northern Europe and ushers in a
period of peace and prosperity that lasts until the Roman emperor
Lucius Hiberius demands that Britain once again pay tribute to Rome.
Arthur defeats Lucius in Gaul, but in his absence, his nephew Mordred
seduces and marries
Guinevere and seizes the throne.
Books Eleven and Twelve
Arthur returns and kills
Mordred at the Battle of Camlann, but,
mortally wounded, he is carried off to the isle of Avalon, and hands
the kingdom to his cousin Constantine, son of
Cador and Duke of
The Saxons returned after Arthur's death, but would not end the line
of British kings until the death of Cadwallader.
Brut y Brenhinedd
Brut y Brenhinedd § Brut Tysilio and Geoffrey's
putative British source
Geoffrey claimed to have translated the Historia into
Latin from "a
very ancient book in the British tongue", given to him by Walter,
Archdeacon of Oxford. However, no modern scholars take this
claim seriously. Much of the work appears to be derived from
Gildas's 6th-century polemic The Ruin of Britain, Bede's 8th-century
Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the 9th-century History
of the Britons ascribed to Nennius, the 10th-century Welsh Annals,
medieval Welsh genealogies (such as the Harleian Genealogies) and
king-lists, the poems of Taliesin, the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen,
and some of the medieval Welsh saints' lives, expanded and turned
into a continuous narrative by Geoffrey's own imagination.
In an exchange of manuscript material for their own histories, Robert
of Torigny gave
Henry of Huntington a copy of Historia Regum
Britanniae, which both Robert and Henry used uncritically as authentic
history and subsequently used in their own works, by which means
some of Geoffrey's fictions became embedded in popular history. The
history of Geoffrey forms the basis for much British lore and
literature as well as being a rich source of material for Welsh bards.
It became tremendously popular during the High Middle Ages,
revolutionising views of British history before and during the
Anglo-Saxon period despite the criticism of such writers as William of
Newburgh and Gerald of Wales. The prophecies of
Merlin in particular were often drawn on in later periods, for
instance by both sides in the issue of English influence over Scotland
under Edward I and his successors.
The Historia was quickly translated into Norman verse by
Roman de Brut) in 1155. Wace's version was in turn translated into
Middle English verse by
Layamon (the Brut) in the early 13th century.
In the second quarter of the 13th century, a version in
the Gesta Regum Britanniae, was produced by William of Rennes.
Material from Geoffrey was incorporated into a large variety of
Middle English prose compilations of historical
material from the 13th century onward.
Geoffrey was translated into a number of different Welsh prose
versions by the end of the 13th century, collectively known as Brut
y Brenhinedd. One variant of the Brut y Brenhinedd, the so-called Brut
Tysilio, was proposed in 1917 by the archaeologist William Flinders
Petrie to be the ancient British book that Geoffrey translated,
although the Brut itself claims to have been translated from
Walter of Oxford, based on his own earlier translation from Welsh to
Latin. Geoffrey's work is greatly important because it brought the
Welsh culture into British society and made it acceptable. It is also
the first record we have of the great figure King Lear, and the
beginning of the mythical
King Arthur figure.
For many centuries, the Historia was accepted at face value, and much
of its material was incorporated into Holinshed's 16th-century
Modern historians have regarded the Historia as a work of fiction with
some factual information contained within. John Morris in The Age of
Arthur calls it a "deliberate spoof", although this is based on
misidentifying Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, as Walter Map, a
satirical writer who lived a century later.
It continues to have an influence on popular culture, e.g. Mary
Merlin Trilogy and the TV miniseries
Merlin both contain
large elements taken from the Historia.
Manuscript tradition and textual history
Two hundred and fifteen medieval manuscripts of the Historia survive,
dozens of them copied before the end of the 12th century. Even among
the earliest manuscripts a large number of textual variants, such as
the so-called "First Variant", can be discerned. These are reflected
in the three possible prefaces to the work and in the presence or
absence of certain episodes and phrases. Certain variants may be due
to "authorial" additions to different early copies, but most probably
reflect early attempts to alter, add to or edit the text.
Unfortunately, the task of disentangling these variants and
establishing Geoffrey's original text is long and complex, and the
extent of the difficulties surrounding the text has been established
only recently.
The variant title Historia regum Britaniae was introduced in the
Middle Ages, and this became the most common form in the modern
period. A critical edition of the work published in 2007, however,
demonstrated that the most accurate manuscripts refer to the work as
De gestis Britonum, and that this was the title Geoffrey himself used
to refer to the work.
List of legendary kings of Britain
^ Polydore Vergil's skeptical reading of
Geoffrey of Monmouth provoked
at first a reaction of denial in England, "yet the seeds of doubt once
sown" eventually replaced Geoffrey's romances with a new Renaissance
historical approach, according to Hans Baron, "Fifteenth-century
civilization and the Renaissance", in The New Cambridge Modern
history, vol. 1 1957:56.
^ Thorpe, Lewis G. M. (1966). "Dedication". The history of the Kings
of Britain. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 51–52.
^ a b c Thorpe (1966: 14–19)
^ Wright, Neil (1984). The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of
Monmouth. Woodbridge, England: Boydell and Brewer. p. xvii.
^ Lang, Andrew. History Of English Literature - From Beowulf to
Swinburne. Vincent Press. p. 45. OCLC 220536211. He says
that he has had the advantage of using a book in the Breton tongue
which Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, brought out of Brittany; this book
he translates into Latin.
^ Wright, Neil (1984). The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of
Monmouth. Woodbridge, England: Boydell and Brewer.
pp. xvii–xviii. ISBN 978-0-85991-641-7. This fusion of
heterogeneous sources, which is apparent almost everywhere in the
Historia, completely dispels the fiction that the work is no more than
a translation of a single Breton (or Welsh) book
^ "...the Historia does not bear scrutiny as an authentic history and
no scholar today would regard it as such.": Wright (1984: xxviii)
^ C. Warren Hollister, Henry I (Yale English Monarchs), 2001:11
^ A. O. H. Jarman, Geoffrey of Monmouth, University of Wales Press,
1965, p. 17.
^ Sir William Flinders Petrie, Neglected British History, 1917
^ William R. Cooper, Chronicle of the Early Britons (pdf), 2002, p. 68
^ John Morris. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from
350 to 650. Barnes & Noble Books: New York. 1996 (originally
1973). ISBN 0-7607-0243-8
^ Reeve 2007, p. lix.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The history of the kings of Britain: an edition
and translation of De gestis Britonum (Historia regum Britanniae).
Arthurian studies. 69. Michael D. Reeve (ed.), Neil Wright (trans.).
Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. 2007.
John Jay Parry and Robert Caldwell.
Geoffrey of Monmouth in Arthurian
Literature in the Middle Ages, Roger S. Loomis (ed.). Clarendon Press:
Oxford University. 1959. ISBN 0-19-811588-1
Brynley F. Roberts,
Geoffrey of Monmouth and Welsh Historical
Tradition, Nottingham Medieval Studies, 20 (1976), 29-40.
J. S. P. Tatlock. The Legendary History of Britain: Geoffrey of
Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae and its early vernacular
versions. University of California Press. Berkeley. 1950.
Michael A. Faletra, ed., The History of the Kings of Britain
(Broadview Press, 2008)
N. Wright, ed., The Historia regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
1, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS. 568 (Cambridge, 1984)
N. Wright, ed., The historia regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
2, The first variant version : a critical edition (Cambridge,
J. C. Crick, The historia regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth. 3,
A summary catalogue of the manuscripts (Cambridge, 1989)
J. C. Crick, The historia regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth. 4,
Dissemination and reception in the later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1991)
J. Hammer, ed., Historia regum Britanniae. A variant version edited
from manuscripts (Cambridge, MA, 1951)
A. Griscom and J. R. Ellis, ed., The Historia regum Britanniæ of
Geoffrey of Monmouth with contributions to the study of its place in
early British history (London, 1929)
M. D. Reeve, 'The transmission of the Historia regum Britanniae ', in
Journal of Medieval
Latin 1 (1991), 73—117
Edmond Faral, La légende Arthurienne: études et documents, 3 vols.
R. W. Leckie, The passage of dominion :
Geoffrey of Monmouth and
the periodization of insular history in the twelfth century (Toronto,
The full text of History of the Kings of Britain at Wikisource
Media related to
Historia Regum Britanniae
Historia Regum Britanniae at Wikimedia Commons
Online text at Google Books
Latin text at Google Books
Historia regum Britanniae Second Variant version at Cambridge Digital
History of the Kings of Britain public domain audiobook at LibriVox
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Prophetiae Merlini (c. 1135)
Historia Regum Britanniae
Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136)
Vita Merlini (c. 1150)
Roman de Brut
Brut y Brenhinedd
Alhfrith of Deira
Augustine of Canterbury
Bledric ap Custennin
Brutus of Troy
Budic II of Brittany
Cadfan ap Iago
Cadwallon ap Cadfan
Camber (legendary king)
Cap of Britain
Constans II (usurper)
Constantine the Great
Constantine III (Western Roman Emperor)
Cordelia of Britain
Edern ap Nudd
Edwin of Northumbria
Eldol, Consul of Gloucester
Goffar the Pict
Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio
Hengist and Horsa
Humber the Hun
Iago ap Beli
Ingenius of Britain
Jago of Britain
Julius and Aaron
Leir of Britain
Lucius of Britain
Lud son of Heli
Marius of Britain
Nennius of Britain
Octa of Kent
Oswald of Northumbria
Oswiu of Northumbria
Owain mab Urien
Penda of Mercia
Pir of the Britons
Publius Septimius Geta
Quintus Laberius Durus
Redon of Britain
Regan (King Lear)
Rud Hud Hudibras
Son of Gorbonianus
Wulfhere of Mercia
Æthelberht of Kent
Æthelfrith of Northumbria
Œthelwald of Deira
Battle of Arfderydd
Battle of Badon
Battle of Camlann
Battle of Guoloph
Brut y Tywysogion
List of legendary kings of Britain
List of legendary rulers of Cornwall
Matter of Britain
Siege of Exeter (c. 630)
Locations associated with Arthurian legend
Treachery of the Long Knives
Trojan genealogy of Nennius
Walter of Oxford