History of the Kings of Britain/Introduction (Six Old English Chronicles)

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History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Introduction by J. A. Giles
From Six Old English Chronicles (1848)

Geoffrey, surnamed of Monmouth, is celebrated in English literature as the author, or at least the translator, of Historia Britonum,[1] a work from which nearly all our great vernacular poets have drawn their materials for some of their noblest works of fiction and characters of romance. He lived in the early part of the twelfth century, and in the year 1152 was raised to the bishopric of St. Asaph.

The first of his writings, in point of time, was a latin translation of the Prophesies of Merlin, which he undertook at the request of Alexander bishop of Lincoln. His next work was that on which his principal fame rests, the Historia Britonum, dedicated to Robert, duke of Gloucester, who died in 1147. Into this second work he inserted the Latin translation above-mentioned, which now appears as the seventh book of Historia Britonum. A third composition has also been ascribed to Geoffrey, entitled Vita Merlini, in Latin hexameter verse: but the internal ec#vidence which it affords, plainly proves that it is the work of a different author.

Although the list of our Chroniclers mant be considered as complete, without the addition of this work, yet we have thought it worthy of a place in our series for many reasons. It is not for historical accuracy that the book before us is valuable; for the great mass of scholars have come to the decided conclusion that it is full f fables. But it is the romantic character which pervades the narrative, together with its acknowledged antiquity, which make it desireable that the book should not sink into oblivion. Those who desire to possess it as a venerable relic of an early age, will now have an opportunity of gratifying their wish; whilst others, who despise it as valueless, in their researches after historic truth, may, nevertheless, find some little pleasure in the tales of imagination which it contains.

The value of this work is best evinced by the attention which was paid to it for many centuries; Henry of Huntingdon made an abstract of it, which he subjoined as an appendix to his history: and Alfred of Beverley, a later writer, in his abridgment of this work which still exists, has omitted Geoffrey's name, though he calls the author of the original, Britannicus.

An English translation of the work was first published by Aaron Thompson, of Queen's College, Oxford, [8vo, Lond. 1718,] and lately revised an reprinted by the author of this volume. [8vo. Lond. 1842.] A long preface is prefixed to that translation, wherein the aithor endeavoured to prove Geoffrey of Monmouth to be a more faithful historian than he is generally considered to be. His words are as follow:—"I am not unsensible that I expose myself to the censures of some persons, by publishing this translation of a book, which they think had better been suppressed and buried in oblivion, as being at present generally exploded for a groundless and fabulous story, such as our modern historians think not worth relating, or at least mention with contempt. And though it is true, several men, and those of learning too, censure this book who have but little considered it, and whose studies no ways qualify them to judge of it; yet, I own this consideration has for a long time deterred me from publishing it: and I should not at last have been able to surmount this difficulty, without the importunity and encouragement of others, to whom I owe a singular regard. I had indeed before I entered upon the work perused the principal writers both for and against the history, the effect of which upon my own judgment, as to the swaying it to the one side more than the othr, was but very small; and I must confess, that I find the most learned antiquaries the most modest in their opinions concerning it, and that it seems to me to be a piece of great rashness, to judge peremptorily upon a matter, whereof all this great distance of time there are no competent witnesses on either side. At least I cannot but think it a sufficient apology for my publishing this book, to consider only, that although it seems to suffer under a general prejudice at present, yet it has not long done so; but that upon its first appearing in the world, it met with a universal approbation, and that too, from those who had better opportunities of examining the truth of it, as there were then more monuments extant, and the traditions more fresh and uncorrupted concerning the ancient British affairs, than any critics of the present age can pretend to; that it had no adversary before William of Newburgh about the end of the reign of Richard the First, whose virulent invective against it, we are told, proceeded from a revenge he thought he owed the Welsh for an affront they had given him; that his opposition was far from shaking the credit of it with our succeeding historians, who have, most of them, till the beginning of the last century, confirmed it with their testimonies, and copied after it, as often as they had occasion to treat of the same affairs: that its authority was alleged by king Edward the First and all the nobility of the kingdom, in a controversy of the greatest importance, before Boniface the Eighth; that even in this learned age, that is so industrious to detect any impostures, which through the credulity of former times had passed upon the world, the arguments against this history are not thought so convincing, but that several men of equal reputation for learning and judgment with its adversaries, have written in favour of it; that very few have at last spoken decisively against it, or absolutely condemned it; and that it is still most frequently quoted by our most learned historians and antiquaries. All these considerations, I say, if they do not amount to an apology for the history itself, show at least that it deserves to be better known that at present it is; which is sufficient to justify my undertaking the publishing of it."

It is unnecessary in the present day to prove that king Brute is a shadowy personage, who never existed but in the regions of romance: but as the reader may justly expect to find in this place some account of the controversy which has existed respecting this work, the following remarks will not be deemed inappropriate. There seems no good reason for supposing that Geoffrey of Monmouth intended to deceive the world respecting the history of which he professed to be the translator; and it may be readily conceived that he did no more than fulfil the task which he had undertaken, of rendering the book into Latin out of the original language. But those who, even as late as the beginning of the last century, supported the authenticity of the history, have grounded their opinions on such arguments as the following:—

  1. That, upon its first appearance in the world, the book met with universal approbation, and that too from those who had better opportunities of examining the truth of it, as there were then more monuments extant, ad the traditions were more fresh and uncorrupted, concerning the ancient British affairs, than any critics of the present age can pretend to.
  2. That except William of Newburgh, about the end of the reign of Richard I, it met with no opponents even down to the seventeenth century, but was, on the contrary, quoted by all, in particular by Edward I, in a controversy before Boniface the Eighth.
  3. That we see in this history the traces of venerable antiquity.
  4. That the story of Brute, and the descent of the Britons from the Trojans, was universally allowed by Giraldus Cambrénsis and others, and was opposed for the first time by John of Wethamstede, [Nicholson's Eng. Hist. Lit. 2nd ed. p. l., c. v.] who lived in the 15th century: that Polydore Virgil's contempt for it proceeded from his wish to preserve unimpaired the glory of the Romans, and Buchanan's observations betray his ignorance of the story.
  5. That Leland, who lived under Henry the Eighth, Humphrey Lhwyd, Sir John Price, Dr. Caius, Dr. Powel, and others, have supported the story of Brute, etc.

Such arguments may have satisfied the credulous students of the seventeenth century, but the more enlightened criticism of the present day will no longer listen to them. It may not, however, be uninteresting to hear the account which Thompson, the English translator gives of this work, which, in his won words, and with his additional remarks upon it, is as follows:—"The story, as collected from himself, Leland, Bale, and Pitts, is that Walter Mapes, alias Calienus, archdeacon of Oxford, who flourished in the reign of Henry I, and of whom Henry of Huntingdon, and other historians as well as Geoffrey himself, make honourable mention, being a man very curious in the study of antiquity, and a diligent searcher into ancient libraries, and especially after the works of ancient authors, happened while he was in Armorica to light upon a History of Britain, written in the British tongue, and carrying marks of great antiquity. And being overjoyed at it, as if he had found a vast treasure, he in a short time after came over to England; where inquiring for a proper person to translate this curious but hitherto unknown book, he very opportunely met with Geoffrey of Monmouth, a man profoundly versed in the history and antiquities of Britain, excellently skilled in the British tongue, and withal (considering the time,) an elegant writer both in verse and prose; and so recommended this task to him. Accordingly, Geoffrey, ebing incredibly delighted with this ancient book, undertook the translating of it into Latin, which he performed with great diligence, approving himself, according to Matthew Paris, a faithful translator. At first he divided it into four books, written in plain simple style, and dedicated it to Robert, earl of Gloucester, a copy whereof it is said to be at Bennet College, in Cambridge, which was never yet published; but afterwards he made some alterations and divided it into eight books, to which he added the book of Merlin's Propehesies, which he had also translated from British verses into Latin prose, prefixing to it a preface, and a letter to Alexander, bishop of Lincoln. A great many fabulous and trifling stories are inserted in the history: but that was not his fault; his business as a translator was to deliver them faithfully such as they were, and leave them to the judgment of the learned to be discussed.

"To prove the truth of this relation, and to answer at once all objections against Geoffrey's integrity, one needs no other argument than an assurance that the original manuscript which Geoffrey translated, of whose antiquity the curious are able to judge in a great measure by the character, or any ancient and authentic copy of it, is yet extant. And indeed archbishop Usher )Brit. Eccl. Prim. cap. 5.) mentions an old Welsh chronicle on the Cottonian Library, that formerly was in the possession of that learned antiquary, Humphrey Lhwyd, which he sais is thought to be that which Geoffrey translated. But if that be the original manuscript, it must be acknowledged that Geoffrey was not merely a translator, but made some additions of his own: since, as that most learned prelate informs us, the account that we have in this History of the British Flamens, and Archflamens, is nowhere to be found in it. But besides this, there are several copies of it in the Welsh tongue, mentioned by the late ingenious and learned Mr. Lhwyd in his 'Archæologia Britannica.' And I myself have met with a manuscript history of our British affairs, written above a hundred years ago by Mr. John Lewis, and shortly to be published, wherein the author says, that he had the original of the British History in parchment written in the British tongue before Geoffrey's time, as he concludes from this circumstance, that in his book Geoffrey's preface was wanting, and the preface to his book was the second chapter published by Geoffrey. My ignorance of the Welsh tongue renders me unqualifued for making any search into these matters; and though the search should be attended with never so much satisfaction, to those who are able to judge of the antiquity of manuscripts, yet to the generality of readers, other arguments would perhaps be more convincing."

The passages which we have here quoted at length, will give the reader the most ample information concerning the nature of the question, and it only remains to inform the reader what is my own opinion on this long-agitated literary controversy.

To those ho have read the plain and simple statements of Julius Caesar and the other classic historians who have described the state of Britain, it will be morally certain that all such accounts as we have in Geoffrey of Monmouth are purely fabulous. The uncertainty of every thing, save the bre fact, connected with the siege of Troy, is so great, that to connect its fortunes with those of a distant and at that time unheard-of island like Britain, can be admissible only in the pages of romance. But in the latter part of the work which contains the history of Britain, during its conquest by the Saxons, we may possibly find the grms of facts unnoticed elsewhere.

This view does not militate against the veracity of Geoffrey, who professes to have translated from an original in the British language, but whether any manuscript copy of this original now exists, is a point which has not been satisfactorily ascertained. In 1811, the Rev. Peter Roberts published the Chronicle of the Kings of Britain, translated from Welsh manuscripts, and being in substance almost identically the same as Geoffrey's History of the Britons,—but it is most likely that these Welsh MSS., which are all comparatively modern, are themselves re-translations from the Latin of Geoffrey.

If no other arguments could be adduced to prove the utter incredibility of the earlier parts of this history, the following Chronological Table would furnish quite sufficient arguments to establish it, by the extraordinary anachronisms which it contains. For instance, between the reigns of Brutus and Leil, is an interval of 156 years; and yet Geoffrey makes the capture of the ark contemporary with the reign of Brutus, and the building of Solomon's temple with that of Leil. Now the interval between those two events cannot by any possibility be extended beyond eighty years. It is, moreover, impossible to bring the chronology of the British kings themselves into harmony with the dates before Christ, as there is no mention made of the exact interval between the taking of Troy and Brutus's landing in Britain.

Geoffrey inscribes his work to Robert, earl of Gloucester, son of Henry the Second.

Genealogical summary[edit]

                      Latinus
                   _____|_____
                   |         |
         Aeneas=Lavinia    (---)
               |             |
           Ascanius          |
               |             |
           Sylvius=(Niece of Lavinia) 1.3
                  |
                  |
    Pandrasus     |
        |         | 
     Ignoge=1 Brutus at the age of 15 kills his father. (1.3)
           |     Reigns twenty-four years. (2.1)
           |   At this time Eli governed Israel, and the ark
           |     was taken by the Philistines, and the sons of
           |     Hector reigned in Troy, and Sylvius Aeneas,
           |     uncle of Brutus, in Italy. (1.17)
        ___|________________________________
        |                      |           |
        |                   Albanact     Kamber 2.1
        |        Corineus
        |           |
    2 Locrin=3 Guendoloena  {Locrin by Estrilda has Sabre, who
   r. 10 yrs|    15 yrs     {  being drowned in the Severn,
            |               {  gives name to that river.
            |
       4 Maddan 2.6         {At this time Samuel governed
         ___|__________     {  Israel, and Homer flourished.
         |            |
  5 Mempricius      Malim   {Saul reigns in Judaea, Eurystheus
      20 yrs                {  in Lacedaemon.
         |
   6 Ebraucus               {King David--Sylvius Latinus--Gad--
      40 yrs                {  Nathan and Asaph.
   (or 60, quaere 2.7-8
         |
   7 Brutus II, 12 yrs, and 19 other sons and 30 daughters, 2.8
         |
      8 Leil                {Solomon--Queen of Sheba--Sylvius
      25 yrs                {  Epitus
         |
   9 Hudibras               {Capys--Haggai--Amos--Joel--Azariah
     39 yrs
         |
    10 Bladud
     20 yrs 2.10
         |
     11 Leir
      60 yrs 2.11
       __|______________________________________
       |                     |                 |
12 Gonorilla=Maglaunis, Regau=Henuinus, Cordeilla=Aganippus
     5 yrs  |  D, of         |  D. of               K. of
            | Albania        | Cornwall              Gaul
            |                |
         Margan        13 Cunedagius  {Isaiah--Hosea--Rome
                           33 yrs     {  built by Romulus &
                              |       {  Remus
                         14 Rivallo
                              |____________
                              |           |
                      15 Gurgustius     (---)
                              |           |
                        16 Sisilius   17 Jago
                              |
                       18 Kinmarcus
                              |
                       19 Gorbodugo=Widen
                             ______|______
                             |           |
                          Ferrex       Porrex

                       Long civil wars.

 At length arose Dunwallo Molmutius, son of Cloten, king of
                       Cornwall. 2.17

              20 Dunwallo Molmutius=Conwenna
                       40 yrs      |
                    _______________|______________
                    |                            |
              21 Belinus                     Brennius
               5 yrs in concert with Brennius
                    |
        22 Gurgiunt Brabtruc 3.11
                    |
             23 Guithelin=Martia
                         |
                    24 Sisilius
                _________|_________
                |                 |
           25 Kimarus        26 Danius=Tangustela
                                        |
                                  27 Morvidus
       _________________________________|___________________
       |             |            |           |            |
28 Gorbonian  29 Arthgallo  30 Elidure  31 Vigenius  32 Peredure
       |             |            |           |            |
       |        Arthgallo was deposed in favour of Elidure, who,
       |          after a reign of 5 years, restored his brother,
       |          who reigned 10 years afterwards. Elidure then
       |          reigned a second time, but was deposed by Vigenius
       |          and Peredure: after whose deaths he reigned a third
       |          time.           |           |            |
       |             |            |           |            |
33 Gorbonian's       |            |           |            |
  son, 3.19          |            |           |            |
          ___________|_____       |           |            |
          |               |       |           |            |
    34 Margan     35 Enniaunus    |      36 Idwallo    37 Runno
                                  |
                            38 Geruntius
                                  |
                            39 Catellus

        40 Coillus    41 Porrex      42 Cherin
                             _____________|_____________
                             |            |            |
                      43 Fulgenius  44 Eldadus  45 Andragius
                                                       |
                                                 46 Urianus

47 Elius   48 Cleaucus   49 Cletonus   50 Gurgintius   51 Merianus
 
          52 Bleduno   53 Cap   54 Oenus   55 Sisilius
                    ________________________
                    |                      |
              56 Blegabred             57 Arthmail

58 Eldol   59 Redion   60 Rederchius   61 Samuil Penissel   62 Pir

                         63 Capoir 3.19
                               |
                        64 Cligueillus
                               |
                           65 Heli
            ___________________|__________________
            |                  |                 |
        66 Lud 3.20    67 Cassibellaun        Nennius
            |
            |       {Caesar's invasions took place during
            |       {  Cassibellaun's reign.
            |
     68 Tenuantius
            |       {Jesus Christ is born in the reign of
     69 Kymbelinus  {  Kymbelinus or Cymbeline.
            |
         ___|______________    Claudius
         |                |        |
  70 Guiderius     71 Arviragus=Genuissa
                               |
                          72 Marius
                               |
                          73 Coillus
                               |
                          74 Lucius 4.19

         Lucius embraces Christianity: he dies, AD 156

                          75 Severus
                               |
                       76 Bassianus or Caracalla

   77 Carausius 5.3   78 Allectus   79 Asclepiodotus   80 Coel
                                                           |
                                          81 Constantius=Helena
                                            r. 11 yrs   |
                                                        |
                                                82 Constantine,
                                                emperor of Rome

            83 Octavius assumes the crown of Britain
                   |
                (daughter)=84 Maximian 5.11

                    85 Gratian Municeps

   At this time the Picts and Scots harass the Britons, who
                      apply to the Romans.

  86 Constantine, prince of Armorica, comes to assist the Britons
      ____|___ ___________________________
      |              |                   |
87 Constans    89 Aurelius    90 Uther Pendragon=Igerna
               Ambrosius                       |
   88 Vortigern usurps the throne (5.9)  ______|______
        and calls in the Saxons          |           |
                                     91 Arthur      Anne

  92 Constantine   93 Aurelius Conan   94 Wortiporius   95 Malgo

       96 Careticus     97 Cadwan
          __________         |
          |        |         |
        Peanda   (sister)=98 Cadwallo
                             |
                      99 Cadwallader

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Now more usually referred to as Historia Regum Britanniae; Historia Brittonum is the usual title of an earlier Latin work ascibed to Nennius.