Geoffrey Of Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth

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Geoffrey of Monmouth (in Welsh: Gruffudd ap Arthur or Sieffre o Fynwy) (c. 1100 – c. 1155) was a clergyman and one of the major figures in the development of British history and the popularity of tales of King Arthur.



Geoffrey's birthplace is unknown, but he may have been born in Monmouth in Wales, possibly of Breton ancestry. Certainly he had significant connections to Monmouth, as his name suggests, and the descriptions of Caerleon in Historia Regum Britanniae indicate familiarity with the area. He studied at Oxford University, where he met Walter, who was Archdeacon of Oxford. On 21 February 1152 Archbishop Theobald consecrated Geoffrey as bishop of St Asaph, having ordained him a priest 10 days before. "There is no evidence that he ever visited his see," writes Lewis Thorpe, "and indeed the wars of Owain Gwynedd make this most unlikely."[1] Geoffrey attested about six different charters between the years 1129 and 1151; the date of his death is recorded in the Welsh Chronicles.


Geoffrey wrote several works of interest. The earliest one to appear was Prophetiae Merlini ("The Prophecies of Merlin"), which he wrote at some point before 1135. Geoffrey presented a series of apocalyptic narratives as the work of the earlier Merlin who, until Geoffrey's book came out, was known as "Myrddin".[2] The first work about this legendary prophet in a language other than Welsh, it was widely read — and believed — much as the prophecies of Nostradamus were centuries later; John Jay Parry and Robert Caldwell note that the Prophetiae Merlini "were taken most seriously, even by the learned and worldly wise, in many nations", and list examples of this credulity as late as 1445.[3]

Next was Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), the work best known to modern readers. It purports to relate the history of Britain, from its first settlement by Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, to the death of Cadwallader in the 7th century, taking in Julius Caesar's invasions of Britain, two kings, Leir and Cymbeline, later immortalised by Shakespeare, and one of the earliest developed narratives of King Arthur. In it, he outlines the rise and fall of many British kings, including Arthur himself and his father, Uther the Conqueror. Geoffrey claims to have translated it from an ancient book written in Welsh, although few take this claim seriously. Much of it is based on the Historia Britonum, a 9th century Welsh-Latin historical compilation, Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and Gildas's 6th century polemic De Excidio Britanniae, expanded with material from Roman histories, Welsh legend, genealogical tracts, and, some claim, Geoffrey's own imagination.[4] It contains little believed historical fact, and many scholars are tempted to agree with William of Newburgh, who wrote around 1190 that "it is quite clear 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."[5] Further, his structuring and reshaping of the Merlin and Arthur myths has had a huge influence in the perception of those figures ever since: he may be viewed as the major establisher of the Arthurian canon.[6]

Lastly, Geoffrey wrote the Vita Merlini ("The Life of Merlin") at some point between 1149 and 1151. This is Geoffrey's own retelling of the earlier Myrddin legend from Welsh tradition, and is an epic in hexameter verse. All his works were written in Latin, the international literary language of medieval Europe.

Not all his contemporaries were convinced by Geoffrey's "History". For example, Giraldus Cambrensis recounts the experience of a man possessed by demons: "If the evil spirits oppressed him too much, the Gospel of St. John was placed on his bosom, when, like birds, they immediately vanished; but when the book was removed, and the History of the Britons by Geoffrey Arthur was substituted in its place, they instantly reappeared in greater numbers, and remained a longer time than usual on his body and on the book."[citation needed]


  1. ^ From the introduction to his translation of The History of the Kings of Britain (London: Penguin Books, 1966), p. 12.
  2. ^ The Welsh scholar Rachel Bromwich observed that this "change from medial dd > l is curious. It was explained by Gaston Paris as caused by the undesirable associations of the French word merde". (Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Welsh Triads, second edition [Cardiff: University of Wales, 1978], p. 472 n.1.)
  3. ^ Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, p. 79.
  4. ^ Thorpe, Kings of Britain pp. 14-19.
  5. ^ Quoted by Thorpe, Kings of Britain, p. 17.
  6. ^ Thorpe, Kings of Britain, p. 20ff., particularly pp. 20–22 & 28–31.

References and further reading

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated, with introduction and index, by Lewis Thorpe. Penguin Books: London, 1966. ISBN 0-14-044170-0
  • John Jay Parry and Robert Caldwell. "Geoffrey of Monmouth" in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, Roger S. Loomis (ed.). Clarendon Press: Oxford University. 1959. ISBN 0-19-811588-1
  • John Morris. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. Barnes & Noble Books: New York. 1996 (originally 1973). ISBN 1-84212-477-3

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