“Take heed, you bear in mind the piety you owe unto your country and unto your fellow countrymen, whose slaughter by the treachery of the Payneham shall be unto your disgrace everlasting. Unless you press hardily forward to defend them. Fight therefore for your country, and if it is that death overtakes you, suffer it willingly for your country’s sake. For death, itself is victory, and healing unto the soul.”
The history of the kings of Britain, the strange, uneven, and extraordinarily influential book written in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth and finished c.1136 may be said to be bear the same relationship to the story of early British inhabitants of our own Island as do the 17 historical books in the old testament from genesis to Esther, to the early history of Israelites in Palestine. As he explains to us in his preface, Geoffrey’s purpose in writing the book was to trace the history of the Britons through a long sweep of 1900 years, stretching from the mythical Brutus, great-grandson of Trojan Aeneas who he supposed to given his name to the island after he had landed there in the twelfth century before Christ, down to his last British king Cadwallader, who harassed by plague, famine, civil dissension and neverending invasion from the continent, finally abandoned Britain to the Saxons in the 7th century of our era. Between these two extreme limits in time, he planned to relate for us the history of the British people, sometimes as a mere genealogy of Royal primogenitor, sometimes in succinct chronicle form, more often as a dynastic sequence told with considerable detail, reign by reign and occasionally even when he considered this to be worthy of our close attention, by permitting an individual incident or anecdote to swell out of proportion and to become a narrative in its own right. For Geoffrey, his history was a pageant of striking personalities moving forward to the greatest personality of them all, Arthur, son of Utherpendragon and Ygerna. With the passing of Arthur, his interest gradually died away, and so indeed does that of the modern reader.
Geoffrey’s essential inspiration was a patriotic one. At the point where the story ends, that is with the death Cadwallader in Rome ‘in the six hundred and eighty-ninth year after our lord’s incarnation’ Britain is still the best of all lands providing in unfailing plenty everything that is suited the use of human beings:’ But the British People who once ruled the country from sea to sea, have now allowed themselves to be divided into two separate Nations: those who crossed back over the channel and settled in the Armorican peninsula and those who stayed on the island. The vengeance of God and the domination of the Saxons have overtaken the last who are now called, the Welsh and they live precariously in the gentle reduce the numbers in the remote access of the Western forests. Let these Welshmen remember their glorious past, cries Geoffrey towards the end of his story, their descent from the kings of Troy, and the various moments in the history when they dominated Europe. Above all let them remember the prophecies of Merlin, made to king Vortigern set out in full in this book, which tells of the triumph of the British people yet to come when the mountains of Armorica shall erupt, Kambria shall be filled again with joy and the Cornish oaks shall once more flourish.
Where did Geoffrey of Monmouth find his material? This question is infinitely more important than any argument as to where he was buried or whether or not one of the charters which he was supposed to have signed is a 13th-century forgery. There are two simple answers to the question, simple in the sense that they are naive; these are that he took his material from a little book which a friend had given to him, and alternatively that he made his material up. We have seen how at the beginning of his history, Geoffrey stated category Kali that Walter the archdeacon presented him with a certain very ancient book written in the British language and that he proceeded to translate the book into plain, straightforward Latin. This sourcebook is mentioned again casually and then refer to a third time in the short epilogue which appears at the end of some versions of the history, with the variation that its antiquity is not stressed And we are given the new information that Walter had fetched it ex Britannia. The essential problem of Walter’s very ancient book is that we do not possess it. As sir, John Lloyd wrote ‘no Welsh composition exists which can be looked upon as the original or even the groundwork of the history of kings of Britain. The first obvious comment is that the fact that we do not possess this book does not rule out its possible one-time existence. It would have been a manuscript, of course maybe a unique copy and far more medieval manuscripts have been destroyed that have come down to us.
Acton Griscom inspired to some extent by an address given by Sir Flinders Petrie to the British Academy on 7th of November 1917 had a second theory. This was that, while it agreed that Geoffrey’s very English ancient book no longer exists, we may have in possession without realizing it, evidence of the book’s one-time existence. In various collections in England and Wales, there are to be found at least 58 manuscripts and two fragments of manuscripts that contain early Welsh chronicles. All of them admittedly are later in date in The History of Kings of Britain. But it does not follow that some of the material incorporated in them does not predate Geoffrey’s work. It is now accepted that he had at his disposal something closely related to MS. Harl. 3859 in the British museum the contents of which are Nennius’s Historia Brittonum with the Cites and Marvels of Britain, and the medieval Welsh King lists and genealogies.
There is a third possibility, despite his categorical statement about the very ancient book was Geoffrey perhaps thinking symbolically. Buy this ancient book did he really mean the knowledge of early British history which his friend Walter had culled from a lifetime of talking to fellow enthusiasts of extensive reading, he being so well informed about the history of foreign countries which knowledge he had shared with Geoffrey during the long years of their acquaintanceship. Some support is given to this idea by the statement concerning the battle of Camlann, in which Arthur received his mortal wound, that Geoffrey heard it too from Walter of Oxford, a man most learned in all branches of history. As J.S.B. Tatlock pointed out, in Geoffrey’s time the lack of accounts of British history was notorious. Geoffrey had several clear-cut political reasons for what he wrote, his desire to give a precedent for the dominions and ambitions of the Norman kings, and his wish to ingratiate himself with his various dedicatees. To some degree, the book pretends to be an ecclesiastical history as well as a political one. Through it runs a deep-felt and often better desire to denigrate the Romans and to put the Britons in their place at the forefront of history.
William of Newburgh writing about 1190 less than 40 years Geoffrey’s death condemned his fellow chronicler out of hand. ‘It is quite clear’ maintained William, ‘that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors or Indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying or for the sake of pleasing the Britons. One is sometimes tempted to agree with William. After all the history of kings of Britain, rests primarily upon the life history of three great men: Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, Belinus, who sacked Rome, and Arthur king of Britain. This particular Brutus never existed; Rome was never sacked by a Brit, and Arthur is far nearer to the fictional hero of the later Arthurian romances.
The Historia was quickly translated into Norman verse by Wace in 1155. Wace’s version was in turn translated into Middle English verse by Layamon in the early 13th century. In the second quarter of the 13th century, a version in Latin verse, the Gesta Regum Britanniae, was produced by William of Rennes. Material from Geoffrey was incorporated into a large variety of Anglo-Norman and Middle English prose compilations of historical material from the 13th century onward.