Historia Regum Britanniae

Historia regum Britanniae
The History of the Kings of Britain
Illumination of a 15th-century manuscript of Historia regum Britanniae showing Vortigern and Ambros watching the fight between two dragons.
Author(s)Geoffrey of Monmouth
Ascribed toGeoffrey claims to have translated "a very ancient book in the British tongue" into Latin
Dedicated toRobert, earl of Gloucester and Waleran, count of Meulan
Datec. 1136
Manuscript(s)215 manuscripts, notably Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS. 568
SubjectLegendary kings of the Britons
SettingMainly Great Britain
PersonagesSee, e.g., List of legendary kings of Britain
Adapted and translated, e.g., by Wace, Layamon and the authors of the Brut y Brenhinedd.

Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), originally called De gestis Britonum (On the Deeds of the Britons), is a pseudohistorical 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 taken as historical well into the 16th century,[1] 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 King Arthur.



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 Gildas and 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.[2]

Book One

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 lands at 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.

Book Two

When Brutus dies, his three sons, Locrinus, Kamber and Albanactus, divide the country between themselves; the three kingdoms are named Loegria (England), 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, but dies in the process.

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 herself. Marganus and Cunedagius divide the kingdom between themselves, but soon quarrel and go to war with each other. Cunedagius eventually kills Marganus in Wales and retains the whole kingdom, ruling for thirty-three years. He is succeeded by his son Rivallo.

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 Cloten, 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".

Book Three

Dunvallo's sons, Belinus and Brennius, fight a civil war before being reconciled by their mother, and proceed to sack Rome. Victorious, Brennius remains in Italy, while Belinus returns to rule Britain.

Numerous brief accounts of successive kings follow. These include Lud, who renames Trinovantum "Kaerlud" after himself; this later becomes corrupted to London. Lud is succeeded by his brother, Cassibelanus, as Lud's sons Androgeus and Tenvantius are not yet of age. In recompense, Androgeus is made Duke of Kent and Trinovantum (London), and Tenvantius is made Duke of Cornwall.

Book Four

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 days 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 his nephew Tenvantius, as Androgeus has gone to Rome. Tenvantius is succeeded in turn by his son Kymbelinus, and then Kymbelinus's son Guiderius. 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. When Octavius passes the crown to his son-in-law Maximianus, his nephew Conan Meriadoc is given rule of Brittany to compensate him for not succeeding. 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, especially as their numbers have been depleted due to Conan colonizing Brittany and Maximianus using British troops for his campaigns. 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 et Conquestu Britanniae).

Books Five and Six

After the Romans leave, the Britons ask the King of Brittany (Armorica), Aldroenus [fr], descended from Conan, to rule them. However Aldroenus instead sends his brother Constantine to rule the Britons. After Constantine's death Vortigern assists their eldest son Constans in succeeding, before enabling their murder and coming to power. Constantine's remaining sons Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther are too young to rule and are taken to safety in Amorica. Vortigern invites the Saxons under Hengist and Horsa to fight for him as mercenaries, but they rise against him. He loses control of much of his land and encounters Merlin.

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.

Book Eight

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 of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall. But while celebrating this victory with Gorlois, he falls in love with the duke's wife, Igerna. This leads to war between 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 Romans, led by Lucius Hiberius, demands that Britain once again pay tribute to Rome. Arthur defeats Lucius in Gaul, intending to become Emperor, 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 Cornwall.

The Saxons returned after Arthur's death, but would not end the line of British kings until the death of Cadwallader. Cadwallader is forced to flee Britain and requests the aid of King Alan of the Amoricans. However an angel's voice tells him the Britons will no longer rule and he should go to Rome. Cadwallader does so, dying there, though leaves his son and nephew to rule the remaining Britons. The remaining Britons are driven into Wales and the Saxon Athelstan becomes King of Loegria.