Geoffrey of Monmouth and his History of the Kings of Britain

For centuries, tales of a great war hero named Arthur were spread by word of mouth or recorded by monks. But for the most part, these tales remained local, only being remembered among the Welsh, Cornish, and Bretons.

Scylla and Minos Illustration from a medieval manuscript depicting the Ancient Greek epic Scylla and Minos. The characters are drawn wearing medieval clothing, and a medieval castle can be seen in the background.

Medieval culture did not value historical accuracy as we do today, and instead, the custom was to set everything in one's own time. As a result, there exist a multitude of surviving medieval manuscripts and artwork depicting older, Greek or Biblical tales in which the characters are depicted as living in medieval castles, or wearing medieval battle armor. As various authors told and retold the story of a great war chief named Arthur, he was gradually transformed into a king, and his men became knights who jousted and partook in other activities which did not exist in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Arthur's popularity soared and quickly spread across Europe in the year 1136, when a man named Geoffrey of Monmouth published his History of the Kings of Britain. Geoffrey claimed that this was a genuine history of the kings who had ruled over Britain, but in reality, it was a collection of older folklore, much of which Geoffrey distorted or mixed with his own inventions. The result was a critical success; the book gained a huge amount of popularity, and modern historians have referred to it as a "medieval bestseller." A few, more–informed individuals spoke out against Geoffrey's deception, but in the end, popular opinion won over critical analysis, and these individuals were silenced.

Modern–day historians are so offended by Geoffrey's deception that up until just a few decades ago, it was common for historians to claim that he was a charlatan who had fabricated the entire book on his own. However, even the most cursory review of the material quickly reveals that this is not the case. Many of the stories in his History are clearly retellings of older, Welsh sources. For example, his story about Merlin is clearly identical to an older tale about a boy named Ambrosius, and Geoffrey even throws in the line Merlin, who was also called Ambrosius... in order to protect himself. While it is clear that Geoffrey distorted much, it is also clear that he spent a good amount of time and effort researching Welsh and Celtic mythology before compiling his book.

For a man who has made such an impact on British literature, relatively little is known about Geoffrey of Monmouth. One of his primary motivations in writing his History seems to have been to gain political favor with his various dedicatees, and perhaps also to establish the right of his Norman kings to rule over Britain. He was apparently a Welshman, or perhaps a Breton, and we know that he lived in Oxford for some time. Oxford the university had not yet been founded, but Oxford the city was a great center of learning even then, and it is possible that Geoffrey may have taught there as well. Beyond this, little is known about him.

Geoffrey begins his History with a dedication in which he tells us that his book is merely a translation of a much older work which he received from Walter, the Archdeacon at Oxford. Geoffrey explains:

"At a time when I was giving a good deal of attention to such matters, Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, a man skilled in the art of public speaking and well–informed about the history of foreign countries, presented me with a certain very ancient book written in the British language. This book, attractively composed to form a consecutive and orderly narrative, set out all the deeds of these men, from Brutus, the first King of the Britons, down to Cadwallader, the son of Cadwallo. At Walter's request I have taken the trouble to translate this book into Latin..."
(Geoffrey, pp. 51)

If Geoffrey was simply translating an older book as he claims, no version of it has survived, and there is no indication that it ever existed. As historian Geoffrey Ashe points out, this dedication is most likely meaningless. Medieval culture valued authority over originality, and it was common for authors to claim that their original work was a translation of a much older source in order to give the work more credibility. As for the claim about Walter the Archdeacon, Archdeacons were notoriously corrupt in the Middle Ages, and a popular joke at the time was for people to debate whether an Archdeacon could be saved. As such, it is not unrealistic to believe that Geoffrey of Monmouth would have been able to find an Archdeacon whom he could bribe to go along with his claim.

The standard, accepted explanation among historians is that Geoffrey was lying about this very ancient book, and that The History of the Kings of Britain was his original work. However, it is worth noting that some historians have presented alternate explanations as to how Geoffrey could have been telling the truth, and a few fanatics in the field have even gone so far as to argue that his History is a genuine history of Britain.

Geoffrey's History begins with an introduction telling us that 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. He goes on to describe how Britain provides in unfailing plenty, everything that is suited to the use of human beings, and spends several sentences describing the hillsides, the richness of the soil, the abundant game of the forest, and so on. There are three noble rivers, he tells us, the Thames, the Severn, and the Humber, into which goods from across the ocean are carried. He goes on to tell us that Britain is inhabited by five races: the Norman-French, the Britons, the Saxons, the Picts, and the Scots. Originally, the Britons were the sole inhabitants of the island, he explains, but arrogance caused the vengeance of God to overtake them, and they submitted to the overwhelming force of the Picts and the Saxons.

Now Geoffrey begins his actual story, which begins where the Ancient Greek epics left off. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas and his son, Ascanius, fled the city and came to Italy by boat. There, a dispute broke out with one king, and this caused him to attack them. Aeneas slew the king in battle, and took his throne and his lands. After Aeneas died, his son, Ascanius, was crowned king, and when he died, the crown was passed on to his son, Silvius. Silvius married, and when his wife became pregnant, he asked his soothsayers to determine the sex of the child. They told Silvius that his wife would give birth to a boy who would cause the death of both his mother and his father, and after wandering in exile through many lands, he would eventually rise to the highest honor.

Silvius' wife did give birth to a baby boy, and she died during childbirth. The boy was given the name Brutus, and was raised by his father and a midwife. When he was fifteen years old, he and his father went hunting, and as he was aiming his arrow at some stags, he missed them and accidentally shot his father in the heart, killing him. For this, he was exiled from Italy by his relatives, and he traveled to Greece, where he discovered the descendants of the original Trojans still being held captive. They asked him to help them escape their captors, and he agreed. The Greeks tried to pursue them, but Brutus was a great military leader. He led the Trojans in battle, and they were victorious.

Brutus and his newfound army then sail to an island where they encounter the goddess Diana. She prophesies to Brutus that there is an island which will prove suitable for him and his descendants. After a series of quests, Brutus and his army come to this island, which is still called Albion at this time, and is only inhabited by giants. Brutus and his Trojan army kill the giants and name the island Britain, after their leader, Brutus. Then they found a city by the River Thames, called New Troy, which would later become London.

From here, Geoffrey goes on to describe the reigns of seventy–five kings who rule over Britain. Some of these are Geoffrey's imagination, but others clearly have roots in older, Welsh folklore. Among them are Bladud, the legendary founder of Bath, and King Leir, the character on whom Shakespeare would later base his tragedy, King Lear.

Once Geoffrey reaches the Roman conquest of Britain, his story stays closer to the historical record. Some of the characters he mentions were genuine people who really did live, although Geoffrey still skews some of the events surrounding them. By the fifth century, Rome is declining, and the Britons have forgotten how to defend themselves. Britain falls siege to a number of attacks from the Picts of present–day Scotland. The Romans stage one rescue attempt, and then end all support of Britain. In desperation, the Archbishop of London travels to Brittany, and offers the rulership of Britain to its leader, Aldroenus, if he will provide aid. Aldroenus declines, but offers the task to his brother, Constantine.

Constantine takes an army to Britain, and under his leadership, the Britons learn how to defend themselves again. He temporarily scatters the invading tribes from the land, and later, he is crowned at Silchester. He marries and has three sons. The oldest, Constans, becomes a monk, the second is named Aurelius Ambrosius, and the third is Utherpendragon.

After ruling for ten years, Constantine is murdered by a Pictish assassin. A dispute arises over which one of his sons, Aurelius Ambrosius, or Utherpendragon, should rule, and a devious nobleman named Vortigern seizes the opportunity to gain power for himself. Vortigern visits the eldest son, Constans, and convinces him to take the crown himself. Constans quickly becomes Vortigern's puppet, and Vortigern eventually arranges to have the Picts assassinate him so he can crown himself king. For display, he has the assassins executed, even though this was all part of his plan. Meanwhile, the guardians of the two remaining princes, Aurelius Ambrosius and Utherpendragon, have them taken to Brittany for safety.

Vortigern's execution of the Pictish assassins prompts the Picts to retaliate, and they begin their invasion again. At this time, two Saxon leaders named Hengist and Horsa land in Britain with three ships full of warriors, offering their services to any prince who will employ them. Vortigern chooses to employ them as mercenaries, and they win several successful battles against the Picts. As a reward, Hengist is given lands in Lincolnshire, and he brings more Saxons into Britain on the pretense of being able to use them as warriors for the kingdom.

When Vortigern meets Hengist's beautiful daughter, Renwein, he is immediately smitten by her, and Hengist agrees to marry them in exchange for more lands in Kent. Vortigern agrees and turns over the lands to him without the knowledge of the earl already ruling over that province. The thought of their king being married to a Saxon disgusts most Britons, including his three sons, but they remain loyal to their king. Once he becomes Vortigern's father–in–law, Hengist begins taking advantage of his new position, and convinces Vortigern to turn more lands over to his new, Saxon relatives.

Meanwhile, the British people are growing increasingly resentful of their king, who has allowed so many Saxons to enter the land, that they now outnumber the British, and have begun cohabiting with British women. They present their case to Vortigern to make the Saxons leave. When he refuses, the British people crown one of his sons, Vortimer, as their king instead.

Vortimer shares the British people's sentiments, and he takes up arms against the Saxons, restoring the lands to the Britons from whom they had been taken, and restores several British churches that had been destroyed by the pagan Saxons. But his stepmother, Reinwein, becoming jealous over the loss of her husband's status, bribes one of Vortimer's servants to slip poison into his drink. With the death of his son, Vortigern is crowned king again, and allows the Saxons to return to Britain, where they arrange a conference of British and Saxon men to sign a peace treaty. At a signal from Hengist, the Saxons pull out daggers and slaughter unarmed British men. Vortigern's life is spared, but he is forced to turn over several of his cities and fortresses. After this, the Saxons ravage Britain, taking the cities of London, York, Lincoln, and Winchester.

Vortigern, at a loss as to what to do, flees to Wales. He asks his soothsayers for advice, and they advise him to build a strong tower so he will have a place of safety from the Saxons he has brought into Britain. Vortigern surveys the land and finally decides to build his tower in the remote, mountainous region of Snowdonia. But every time his workmen begin building the tower, the next day they come back to find that the stones they had laid the previous day have fallen down. Vortigern asks his soothsayers why this keeps happening. Unable to give him an answer, they tell him that he must find a boy who had been born of no father, kill him, and sprinkle his blood on the ground where the tower is to be built.

Vortigern sends messengers all over the country to find a boy born without a father, and at last they find Merlin. In Geoffrey's History, Merlin is not yet depicted as being the kindly, old wizard we think of today, but instead, as a young boy and prophet who performs several amazing feats. Merlin's mother is a nun living in Saint Peter's Church, and his father was an incubus – a creature from Celtic mythology who is part angel and part human. He used to appear and disappear to Merlin's mother in her room at night.

When the messengers learn about Merlin, they bring him and his mother to Vortigern for questioning, and she tells the king the story of Merlin's conception. The king consults with one of his advisors, who confirms that her story is possible.

At this point, the king plans to kill Merlin, but Merlin tells him that his soothsayers are lying, and shows him that the real reason the stones keep falling is because the fortress is being built over an underground pool in which two dragons lay sleeping. At Merlin's prompting, Vortigern orders his men to dig, and they do, indeed, find the pool. When it is drained, two dragons emerge and begin fighting. One of the dragons is white, and the other, red.

The two dragons fighting As the dragons fight, the white one begins winning, and drives the red one to the edge of the pool. This is a sign, Merlin explains: the white dragon represents the Saxons, and the red one, the Britons, Vortigern's own people whom he has betrayed. Merlin predicts that the white dragon will overcome the red one, just as the people of Britain will be overcome by the Saxons. However, in the end, the Boar of Cornwall (by whom he means Arthur) will drive off the invaders, and the Britons will emerge victorious.

At this point, Merlin begins a long prophecy of what will happen to Britain in the future. Geoffrey devotes an entire chapter to this prophecy, and tells us it was originally intended as a separate book which he was asked to translate. But, he says, he has included it here at the request of others. The prophecy is, for the most part, gibberish, and appears to be Geoffrey's original creation. After Merlin finishes prophesying, Vortigern asks what his own fate will be. Merlin advises him to flee, for not only will the Saxons try to kill him, but the young princes, Aurelius Ambrosius and Utherpendragon, have grown up, and have returned to take vengeance on him for killing their father and stealing his throne.

Merlin's prediction is accurate. That day, the two princes land on the shores of Britain, and Aurelius Ambrosius is immediately crowned king by the British people. Vortigern flees and travels across Wales, but Aurelius and his army pursue him and force him to take refuge in one of his fortresses. They manage to set it on fire, and Vortigern perishes in the flames.

Next, Aurelius attacks the Saxons, and drives them north. He manages to capture Hengist, and has him executed. Then, Aurelius gets to work repairing the churches which the Saxons destroyed during their invasion.

With Aurelius restoring Britain, Merlin becomes his advisor. When Aurelius wants to build a memorial for the Britons who were slaughtered at the peace conference, Merlin tells him about a hill in Ireland where, in ancient times, giants brought stones from Africa and arranged them in a magic circle. Aurelius wants to move the stones to this memorial, and he sends both Merlin and Utherpendragon to Ireland to retrieve them. The stones are too heavy for the king's workmen to move, but using his secret arts, Merlin disassembles the stones and reassembles them in Britain. And this is the site which later came to be called Stonehenge.

Aurelius takes ill, and a surviving son of Vortigern bribes his doctor to give him poison instead of medicine. After he dies, Utherpendragon becomes king, and now he must deal with fighting off the remaining Saxons.

For the Easter celebration, Utherpendragon holds a feast at London, and orders all of his nobles to attend. This includes Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, and his wife Ygerna, who is the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. Utherpendragon is overcome with lust for her, and he actively pursues her, constantly smiling at her, and sending food and drink to her table. This enrages Gorlois, and he takes his wife away. Utherpendragon orders them to return, but Gorlois refuses, and the two men go to war. For safety, Gorlois locks Ygerna up in their castle at Tintagel.

After several weeks of fighting, Utherpendragon's desire for Ygerna becomes more than he can bear, and he asks Merlin for help. Merlin produces a potion that will make him look like Gorlois, and his servant, Ulfin, like one of Gorlois' companions. Merlin, too, disguises himself, and the three men enter Gorlois' castle. Believing him to be her husband, Ygerna gives herself freely to Utherpendragon. That same night, Gorlois is killed in battle, and afterwards, Utherpendragon takes his castle and marries Ygerna.

Ygerna gives birth to baby Arthur, and Utherpendragon continues to fight battles against the Saxons, but is unable to drive them from the island. After fighting them for fifteen years, the Saxons manage to have him poisoned, and Arthur is crowned king.

Geoffrey's Arthur is pictured as a young king who drives the invaders from the island, and unites Britain into a vast empire; he is something of a British Alexander the Great. He is a Christian king, and on his shield is an image of the Virgin Mary. His sword, Caliburn, was forged on the magical island of Avalon.

Even though he is only fifteen, Arthur leads a series of battles driving back the Saxons, and forces them to promise to leave Britain. They break their promise and try to take Arthur by surprise, but he checks them and wins a decisive battle, driving them from the shores. After this, he goes after the Scots and Picts, finally trapping them and forcing them to surrender.

Once Britain is freed of invaders, Arthur begins restoring the island to her former glory. He establishes a stable government, and begins to rebuild the churches that were destroyed by the invaders. He marries a woman of Roman descent named Guinevere, and begins expanding his empire. Because the Irish had helped the Picts and Scots, he conquers Ireland, and then Iceland. Geoffrey Ashe puts it best when he humorously points out that this element of Geoffrey's History would not have been difficult at all, since in those days Iceland was uninhabited. From here, Arthur goes on to conquer Norway and Denmark, and then takes Gaul (present–day France) from the Romans.

According to Geoffrey, this is a golden age for Britain. Arthur is adored by the people for his generosity and courage. Britain rises to a standard of sophistication unparalleled anywhere in Europe, with noblemen from far and wide coming to pay homage to him and his knights. He recruits noblemen from far–off countries to join his empire, thus expanding his influence, and he holds his knights to such high standards of excellence that even the person of the noblest blood cannot feel proud unless he dresses like Arthur and his knights.

While the court is still in session, envoys from Rome arrive to complain that Britain has not sent the tribute which the Britons had usually paid, and has instead captured one of their lands. (In Geoffrey's History, Rome is still alive and thriving during the time of Arthur.) The Romans demand Arthur submit to them, and threaten him if he does not. Arthur and his kings consult, and find some grounds for Arthur to be proclaimed Rome's emperor himself. He embarks on a campaign against the Romans, leaving his wife and his nephew, Mordred, in charge.

Arthur goes to war with Rome, and he kills Lucius Hiberius, Procurator of the Roman Republic. Lucius' body is sent back to Rome, with a message saying that this is all the tribute the Romans will receive from the Britons.

The following Summer, Arthur is about to march on Rome when news comes that Guinevere and Mordred have betrayed him. In his absence, they have become lovers. Mordred has proclaimed himself king, and has invited the Saxons back to fight for his army in exchange for lands in Britain.

Arthur returns and drives Mordred's army west. In the Battle of Camblam, Mordred is killed by Arthur's army, but Arthur, too, is mortally wounded, and he is carried off to the island of Avalon so that his wounds might be attended to. Geoffrey does not tell us where Avalon is, or what became of Arthur.

After Arthur is taken to Avalon, the Saxons overrun the island. Geoffrey goes on to describe five more kings who rule after Arthur, but none is able to fight off the Saxons, who now dominate the land. The last of these kings is Cadwallader, who abandons Britain, fleeing to Brittany. There, an angelic voice advises him to do penance for his sins, and assures him that the British people will rule again one day, but not until the Prophecies of Merlin have come to pass, and all relics taken from Britain have been restored. Cadwallader obeys and renounces worldly possessions, before suddenly taking ill and dying.

By now, the British people have become so overwhelmed by the Saxons, and have lost so much of their land, that they are called the Welsh instead of the Britons. The Saxons, having conquered the island, begin to rebuild her cities and castles, and to till the soil. Geoffrey closes his book by telling us that the Saxon leader Adelstan is crowned king, and the Saxons now rule over the whole of the island.

After publishing Geoffrey's History, tales of Arthur became well–known across Europe. As other authors told and retold his story, they added their own details, and began a saga of storytelling that would come together to shape the Arthurian Legends as we know them today. In an interview with, Geoffrey Ashe points out that while other cultures had tales of heroes similar to Arthur, they never gained the same amount of notoriety, perhaps because they never had someone like Geoffrey of Monmouth to make the world aware of them.

Although Geoffrey distorted much in his History, his book is, nevertheless, among the most influential works to shape the Arthurian Legend. Geoffrey is the first to bring King Arthur's legend outside of Wales, and to the attention of most of Europe; he is the first to associate Merlin with Arthur; and he is the first to give us the story of Arthur's conception. Although many historians have considered Geoffrey to be a liar who fooled most of Europe, modern historians recognize his History as having been the starting point of the modern Arthurian Legend.