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Definition: Geoffrey of Monmouth from Philip's Encyclopedia

Welsh priest and chronicler, best known for his History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136). Geoffrey essentially told folk tales. His book was the chief source for the legend of King Arthur and his knights, and it was Shakespeare's source for King Lear and Cymbeline.


Summary Article: GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH (Galfridus Monemutensis, Sieffre o Fynwy; d.1155) Writer from The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales

Of all writers connected with Wales in the Middle Ages, Geoffrey had the greatest appeal and influence. He was probably of Breton descent, and his family may have come to the Monmouth area in the wake of the establishment of the Norman castle and lordship there. Geoffrey’s talents flourished in the context of Anglo-Norman culture. He settled in Oxford, where his name occurs, between 1129 and 1151, in documents relating to local religious houses, in which he probably acted as a teacher. Although chosen bishop of St Asaph in 1151, there is no record that he visited his diocese.

Geoffrey is remembered for his literary work, especially Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), completed c. 1138, a work which purported to give the history of the kings of Britain from Brutus to the death of Cadwaladr the Blessed. The author claimed that the work was translated ‘from an ancient book in the British tongue’. In fact, the Historia is a highly original and deliberate composition. Varied sources were drawn upon to create a pseudo-history where truth and falsehood were skilfully blended. The British were given (through Brutus) a Trojan lineage similar to that of the Romans in Virgil’s Aeneid. Most space was given to Arthur and his reign, but the glory departed with his loss. Saxon (see Anglo-Saxons) hold of Britain became ever tighter and Cadwaladr received angelic warning not to try to regain the kingdom.

Contained in the Historia are prophecies which, it was claimed, the seer Merlin spoke before King Vortigern. These Prophetiae Merlini were independently available in manuscripts c. 1135, before being repeated in the Historia. Geoffrey wrote, c. 1148, another work connected with Merlin, Vita Merlini (Life of Merlin), in which he displayed considerable awareness of some native Welsh legends; these are combined with wide learning and fruitful imagination to produce a 1529-line Latin poem in hexameters.

The purpose of Geoffrey’s hugely influential Historia was partly political, to present to the Normans an appealing picture of Britain’s ancient past. It also inspired a large body of Arthurian literature, in Britain and on mainland Europe. In Wales, the Historia was translated and adapted, in different versions, under the title Brut y Brenhinedd (The Chronicle of the Kings). (Brut y Tywysogyon was written as a sequence to it.) The Welsh were especially reluctant to reject Geoffrey’s interpretation of British history, and Henry Tudor (see Tudor family and English Monarchs) was seen as fulfilling the prophecy, at the end of the Historia, that a day would come when the kingdom would be restored to the British.

© University of Wales Press 2008 text © text, Yr Academi Gymreig 2008

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