A Quest for Arthur:
Geoffrey of Monmouth

An Article by Geoffrey Ashe for britannia.com Part 2

Arthur is one of the few great heroes of legend who has an official biography. It is the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who provided the framework for everything that followed and made it clear when Arthur was supposed to have flourished. You may wonder why he is not called by a surname. The fact is that, in the early 12th century, surnames, in the modern sense, had not caught on. People were referred to as "so and so, the son of so and so", or they were referred to by their birthplace. In Geoffrey's case, very probably, he was born in the town of Monmouth in South-East Wales. We don't know much about him. He may have been a Welshman. He was certainly of Celtic, rather than English, stock. It is quite possible that he was a Breton. Many people from Brittany had come over to England in the train of the Norman Conquest and, indeed, there was one quite prominent Breton noble family in the neighbourhood of Monmouth. It is possible that Geoffrey was connected with them.

He was certainly interested in the people of the Celtic fringe: the Welsh, the Cornish and especially, the Bretons from the other side of the Channel, who were of the same stock. He was probably born somewhere about 1100. We know that he was a minor cleric most of his life and that he was teaching at Oxford between 1129 and 1151. We know that, later, he was consecrated as Bishop of St. Asaph, in Wales, but that he, almost certainly, never went there and that he died about 1154 or 1155. He was deeply interested in the traditions of the Celtic people of the West, who were all descended from the Britons who inhabited this Island in Roman times. He was interested in the traditions of the prophet and magician, Merlin or Myrddin, as the Welsh called him.

His most important work appeared about 1136 and was called "The History of the Kings of Britain." This is one of the most important books of the Middle Ages. It had enormous influence, an influence not only in the field of the stories of Arthur, but in others. It's here, for instance, that we first find the story of King Lear and his three daughters. It was taken up by Edmund Spenser, by Shakespeare himself in the play, "King Lear" and by many others. But, of course, as you can imagine, the title of this book "The History of the Kings of Britain" is, to put it mildly, misleading. It's a quite extraordinary romance of the supposed history of the Kings of Britain over several centuries. Geoffrey claims to have found it in an "ancient book written in the British language." If that is so, the book has disappeared, but we just don't know.

We can see, though, that he does use earlier histories, chronicles and Roman writers. Geoffrey was a very learned man, but what he did with his materials is a marvellous flight of the imagination. You can certainly never trust him for history, although he does use history. He starts his story way back in the age of classical epic, somewhere about the 12th century bc, after the fall of Troy, and he tells us that Britain, which was then called Albion, was colonized by a party of fugitives from the Fall of Troy. They were the Trojans, led by a prince called Brutus. They arrived in Britain, and as we are told, Britain was only inhabited by a few giants, most of them in Cornwall. Geoffrey tells us that the Trojans had no great trouble exterminating the giants. They then took over the country, generally, and renamed it, Britain, after their leader, Brutus. This is a nice example of merry medieval etymology. They founded a capital city on the Thames, New Troy, afterwards called London.

Geoffrey then goes on to list a whole series of British kings in the thousand years or so bc. He has, I think, 76 of them, nearly all imaginary, some of them, perhaps, based on old traditions, some invented by himself. We find some very interesting things. As I mentioned, we find King Lear. Just before King Lear is the story of his father, Bladud, who discovered the hot springs at Bath. You may be interested to know that Bladud also made himself a pair of wings and flew over London, but crashed on a temple in the first recorded "flying accident."

You may notice, of course, that although Shakespeare gives a lot more about King Lear than Geoffrey does, he doesn't give us two things. One, he doesn't tell us when King Lear lived. Geoffrey does tell us that, it was in the 8th century bc. We also know that King Lear goes mad, but in view of the activities of his father with his pair of wings, I can't help thinking there may have been madness in the family.

Well, eventually, Geoffrey gets to the Roman Conquest of Britain and then he can't be quite so free in his inventions, but he tries to make out that the Romans never really conquered Britain. It was a sort of protectorate and the line of British Kings went on under the Roman protection. He improves his story by making out that several of the Roman Emperors were British, anyway. But the part we're most interested in is after Roman Britain, the 5th century, when Britain became independent.

He tells us that there was a king called Constantine, who had three sons, but that he was assassinated, and power came into the hands of a usurper named Vortigern. Vortigern did something that was absolutely disastrous for his country. He needed auxiliary troops to fight the barbarians, the Picts and other people who were making trouble in the north and he invited the heathen Saxons, from across the North Sea, to settle in Britain. These Saxons, of course, were the ancestors of the English, but at that time, they were a very ruthless and piratical lot whose leader was Hengist.

Vortigern was, fundamentally, a weak sort of character, and he came under Hengist's thumb. The Saxons seized a great deal of territory and, at a peace conference arranged by Vortigern and Hengist, killed all the British noblemen with weapons they had secreted in their boots. Vortigern, in fear for his life, fled to Wales and tried to build himself a fortress in Snowdonia. The walls kept collapsing and, in the course of his attempts to repair the damage, Merlin comes on the scene. This is where Merlin enters literature for the first time, as an advisor to Vortigern, or rather as a prophet, who appeared on the scene and foretold Vortigern's speedy doom which did, in fact, follow.

The rightful kings were restored. I cannot tell you exactly when this is supposed to have happened, but it was probably somewhere about the 430s. One of the rightful rulers is called Aurelius Ambrosius (the Ambrosius Aurelianus of history) and one is called Uther. With Uther, we rise to the climax of Geoffrey's story, Arthur.

Uther, he says, was holding court in London, one day, and among the guests were Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall and his wife, Ygerna. Uther's eye fell upon Ygerna and he conceived a violent passion for her. As Geoffrey puts it, he was always passing her dishes and engaging her in sprightly conversation. Her husband realised, after a while, that the conversation had become too sprightly and, without asking permission, he left the court, taking Ygerna with him. He put her in his castle at Tintagel, on the North Coast of Cornwall, where he supposed she would be out of Uther's reach, if he should come looking for her.

Now if you've been to Tintagel, you'll see that this was rather an astute thing to do. It's right out on a huge rocky promontory, connected with the mainland by one [now two] narrow bridge. He reckoned that even if Uther arrived with a whole army, he couldn't get in, that a few guards could hold the bridge. Meanwhile, Uther had taken this departure from the court as an insult and sent his troops down to ravage the duke's lands, in Cornwall. The duke marched out with his own troops to contest the invasion and at this point, Merlin reappears.

Merlin went to Uther and told him that he could achieve what he desired in the matter of Ygerna. Merlin did this by turning the King into an exact replica of the lady's husband: a clone, so to speak. This was the most effective possible disguise for the purpose, because he simply went into the castle. The guards assumed that this was the boss returning, he had his way with Ygerna and, thus, was Arthur begotten. I'm bound to say that if you actually look at Tintagel, the story does raise certain queries and, particularly, if you saw the film, "Excalibur." In the film, Uther not only performs this act of sexual conquest, he does it in full medieval armour which weighed about 50 pounds. Now, considering all the steps you have to climb to get to the castle, I must say that if I had done this wearing full medieval armour, I would not have felt equal to anything much by the time I got to the top. At any rate, thus, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, was Arthur begotten.

Meanwhile, very fortunately, her real husband, the duke, had been killed in battle, so Uther was able to resume his true shape, marry the lady, make her his queen and make their son, Arthur, his heir. Well, says Geoffrey, Uther died comparatively young and Arthur came to the throne while he was still in his teens, but he, very soon, showed that he was a capable leader. He led his troops against the Saxons, who were still making trouble in various parts of the country, and, after various vicissitudes, he defeated them on a hill outside Bath, wielding a wonderful sword called Caliburn, which had been forged in the Isle of Avalon, an enchanted place.

You'll notice that Geoffrey hasn't quite got the name Excalibur yet, but the name Caliburn will very soon become Excalibur, in the works of writers who follow him. After defeating the Saxons, Arthur went north into what is now Scotland, where the Picts and Scots had been making trouble. He defeated the Picts and Scots and then, because the Irish had been helping them, he went over and conquered Ireland. Then, as an afterthought, he went and conquered Iceland, which would not, then, have been very difficult, because it was uninhabited. He came back and reigned with great magnificence, prosperity and popularity. He married Guinevere and began to form an order of knighthood, attracting men of note from every nation. This, of course, is the beginning of the idea of the Knights of the Round Table, although Geoffrey doesn't actually introduce the table as a piece of furniture, but he does introduce this theme of Arthur's knights and their international fame.

He reigned for quite a long time, 12 years or so, in peace and prosperity, and then he resolved to undertake conquests on the Continent. He conquered Norway and he conquered Denmark. In this part of the story, we are beginning to see more characters that are familiar to us. We hear of Gawain and Kay and Bedivere. We don't hear of Lancelot, because he doesn't come into the story until after Geoffrey's time. Then, Arthur went over to Gaul, the country now called France, which was still in the grip of the Western Roman Empire, if rather shakily.

This is one of the clues, of course, to when Geoffrey thinks all this is happening, because the Western Roman Empire ended in 476, so, presumably, he's somewhere in the 5th Century. Arthur conquered the Romans, or defeated them at least, and took over a goodly part of Gaul and organised his conquests under his followers, Kay, Bedivere and others. He went back to Britain and held court very magnificently at Caerleon-upon-Usk, in Wales, near Monmouth. Geoffrey, very possibly, choose this site because he had seen the ruins and because it was a town dating from Roman times, which would still have been standing when Arthur reigned.

In Geoffrey's account of Arthur's court, he doesn't actually mention Camelot, but this is the beginning of the conception of Camelot. While Arthur was holding court at Caerleon, ambassadors came from Rome, protesting his conquests and his withholding of the tribute which the Britons had once paid to Rome. They demanded that he pay the tribute and restore the lands he had overrun. Arthur decided to take the offensive and led an army to Gaul, leaving at home his nephew, Mordred, as his deputy, together with Guinevere.

He defeated the Romans and was marching into Burgundy, in central France, when he was recalled by bad news from home. Mordred had revolted. He persuaded the Queen to live in adultery with him and had proclaimed himself King. Arthur hurried back and defeated the traitor in battle, in Cornwall, by the River Camel. Mordred was killed but Arthur was grievously wounded and, says Geoffrey, he was taken away to the Isle of Avalon for his wounds to be attended too.

That is a very strange ending and, of course, we are not told whether he died or what happened. We're simply told that a cousin of his became king and then Geoffrey goes on with the history, until he comes to the end of it a couple of hundred years further on.

What Geoffrey seems to be doing here is leaving the way open for what was certainly a folk belief about Arthur; that he had never really died; that he was immortal. He was in this mysterious Isle of Avalon or he was asleep in a cave or somewhere like that and sooner or later he would come back. Geoffrey never commits himself to this because he doesn't tell us what happened to Arthur, he leaves the door open.

Now, of course, this is not history and you cannot rely on Geoffrey for any historical facts, as I said before, but he undoubtedly used history. We can see him doing this right through the Roman period, we can see him doing it in the part that comes after King Arthur, and we can see him doing it, to some extent, with the mysterious 5th century itself. We can see that he does use various old Welsh chronicles and things like that. Arthur is clearly in the 5th century and if we ask if this is anything like what happened in the 5th century the answer is yes, it is something like it.

This is not a story made up out of nothing at all. It is a fact that the people of Britain were the Celtic people, the ancestors of the Welsh, and that they did become independent of Rome, somewhere about the year AD 410. There is every reason to think that this King Vortigern existed and certainly the Saxons, the ancestors of the English, were coming into the country about this time as auxiliary troops. This is the sort of thing that the late Roman emperors had done when they were beset with the invading barbarian tribes. They would bring in one lot of barbarians under some sort of treaty, on condition that they would keep order and fight against the other barbarians. When they were brought in on this basis, they were called "foederati" (federates), and it is reasonable to suppose that the Saxons did come in on that basis, just as Geoffrey tells us.

We know, also, that they got out of hand; that many more Saxons came into the country and that, somewhere about the middle of the 5th century, they seem to have been raiding, widely, over most of what is now England, and, for a while, the country fell into anarchy. We know from archeology that around this time the Britons were deserting the Roman towns and settling in the country in old hillforts and places of that kind (presumably, if you stayed in a town with these raiders around you were a sitting duck, and it was better to go somewhere else). So, we find that Geoffrey's story is confirmed, to some extent, by the fact that people were leaving the towns, evidently to get away from the marauders. And, we know that something happened in Britain which didn't happen anywhere else in the old Roman empire of the West, and this is the most significant thing for the story of Arthur.

Generally speaking, when the various barbarians poured across Gaul and Spain, the people of those provinces do not really seem to have cared very much. There is not much sign of popular opposition to them, but in Britain, the situation was different. The people had become independent, they had acquired their freedom and they did fight back against the invaders quite effectively.

There was a phase when the Saxons, having raided at will for years, for some reason withdrew into their original settlements. We know, also, that somewhere around the year AD 500, there was a British victory at a place called Mount Badon which seems to have stopped the Saxon encroachments for quite a long time. So, the story of Arthur and the recovery of the Britons does have its roots in something that was quite unique: the successful struggle of an independent, formerly Roman people against a barbarian invader.

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David Nash Ford was formerly history editor for the now defunct online British history magazine, britannia.com.
The reproduction of this article is dedicated to the memory of its publisher, Rod Hampton.


    © Geoffrey Ashe 1995. All Rights Reserved.