Posts Tagged ‘C12th Renaissance’

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Oxford Castle and King Arthur

January 19, 2022

King Arthur at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain BnF, Latin 8501A, f. 108v

Geoffrey of Monmouth is thought to have been born between 1090 -1100 in Wales; possibly at Monmouth but no written evidence remains to verify this. Geoffrey also signed himself as Geoffrey Arthur in an earlier phase and some historians have linked these names to the Breton community living in this area of Wales after the Norman Conquest and suggest that he had Breton ancestors who were most probably part of William of Normandy’s Breton forces at Hastings in 1066 and later settled in the Welsh marches.

Geoffrey may have been educated abroad at a monastic centre such as Paris or Bec but there are six surviving charter signatures which place him in the Oxford area from 1129 -1151. The charters were drawn up under the instruction of Robert D’Oylly who’s family had held Oxford Castle since the reign of William the Conqueror and had set up the collegiate foundation of St George which was housed at Oxford Castle. The first Robert D’Oylly had begun new construction work on the pre-existing Saxon defensive site in 1074 under the orders of the Conqueror, to subdue the local area and provide a strong defensive stronghold at a strategically important location.

Oxford Castle and site of St George’s College of priests where Geoffrey was secular canon and teacher

Geoffrey’s signature as Geoffrey Arthur was accompanied by the word ‘magister’ which suggests he was a teacher as well as a secular canon at St George’s College and that he wrote his famous History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae) whilst at Oxford around 1135-1139. This is further strengthened by Geoffrey’s claim that the book was actually a translation from an ancient British text which was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, presumably when he was resident at the college.

200 copies of Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain survive which attests to their popularity

There is much debate over whether this is true or a literary invention on his part, perhaps in the hopes of securing patronage from Walter, early in his literary career or to add veracity to his somewhat dubious historical account. Most modern historians reject the idea of a lost British text and suggest that Geoffrey drew on the works of the Venerable Bede (the Ecclesiastical History of the English People or Historia Ecclesiastica written around AD730) and Nennius (British History or Historia Brittenum written around AD 830) adding various lists of ancient kings and a large helping of his own imagination when constructing his History of the Kings of Britain.

Although Oxford had no university when Geoffrey lived there, St George’s College may have encouraged the development of scholastic learning and drawn educated scholars and priests to form a community where learning and writing could thrive during the reign of Henry I.

The C12th Renaissance provided a cultural backdrop to Geoffrey’s writings with a renewed interest in the classical past, it’s institutions, politics and legacy and encouraged interest in the writing of histories and chronicles. This can be seen in the work of contemporary writers like William of Malmesbury who wrote the widely acclaimed Deeds of the English Kings or Gesta Regum Anglorum (a later version of which was also dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester) and the Historia Novella concerning the Anarchy. Henry of Huntingdon wrote The History of the English or Historia Anglorum (dedicated to Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln) among other works and Gerald of Wales wrote A Description of Wales or Descriptio Cambriae which praises the Welsh people in a similar vein to Geoffrey’s own work. There were also heavily-weighted biographies of kings such as the Gesta Stephani which were openly partial to their patron at the expense of his enemies. These historical chronicles shifted the emphasis onto the nature of human achievement and the meanings and patterns within history and were very popular with contemporary audiences.

C12th Renaissance saw many contemporary writers tackling historical chronicles and recording the deeds of kings such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon

The importance of patronage for writers, whether secured from a monastic institution or an aristocratic court was vital as the writer needed someone who would feed, clothe and house him but also stand as a protector in case he offended or fell on the wrong side of contemporary political developments and this can be seen in the three dedications that Geoffrey made at the beginning of his work which suggest the tumultuous world in which he lived and the dangers of committing thoughts to the page.

It seems likely that Geoffrey began his writing towards the end of Henry I’s reign, long after the White Ship disaster of 1120 when the question of the royal succession dominated politics at court. Henry I was left reeling in shock when his son and heir, William the Atheling was drowned, along with several close family members and many high-ranking Anglo-Norman aristocrats. Henry determined to bind his barons to support his daughter Matilda’s claim to succeed but there was much uncertainty over his decision, with many barons uneasy at the prospect of a female ruler, supported by an unpopular husband in the form of Geoffrey, Court of Anjou, and who was the mother of small children. Matilda had left Britain many years previously to be married to Henry Vth, The Roman Emperor and retained the title of Empress from her first marriage. She had only returned to her father’s court after his death and was, therefore, not as well-known as her popular cousin, Stephen of Blois. Stephen seemed like an attractive alternative to many of the Norman aristocracy, being a adult male with proven military experience and son of Henry I’s sister Adela and thus a grandson of the Conqueror. He was charming and affable but lacked the ruthlessness required of a medieval king which prove a weakness in the forthcoming period of civil war.

Stephen of Blois – rival claimant for the throne

There are some indications within the text that Geoffrey supported Matilda’s claim and was perhaps seeking to add weight to it in his writings. The first dedication that Geoffrey wrote was to Matilda’s half-brother, most staunch ally and defender, Robert Earl of Gloucester.

Robert might have been a candidate for the succession himself as he was a powerful Earl with many holdings in the Welsh marches and West Country and was a well-respected member of the court. Despite his illegitimacy, he could have made a play for the throne but decided to support his half-sister’s claim and remain loyal to his father’s wishes. Robert held Monmouth as a fief and therefore, if Geoffrey had been raised in Monmouth, Robert would have been his feudal lord and natural choice to approach for patronage and protection.

Both the other two dedications which were probably appended later to the work name Robert and appeal to him directly for patronage too.

Empress Matilda

In addition, there are four different queens mentioned in the History who provide positive examples of female rule and imply a precedent for female authority within British history – Glendolena, Cordelia, Marcia and Helena. In the case of Helena, she is also the sole heir of her father and parallels have been drawn between her inclusion in the text and the contemporary situation with Henry I and Matilda’s claim to the throne.

Historians have suggested that Geoffrey’s history was written as a propaganda piece in support of the Norman regime, in order to promote the newly-established Norman system of government and that Geoffrey was more interested in gaining patronage from the Norman aristocracy than partial to Matilda’s cause. The second dedication may provide evidence of this as Geoffrey spreads the net wider and includes a co-dedication to Waleran, Count of Meulan, a supporter of Matilda’s cousin and rival claimant for the throne, Count Stephen of Blois.

Geoffrey was certainly heavily influence by his own world-view in his treatment of the five races he describes in the book. His own Breton ancestry and admiration for the Welsh may have led him to present the ancient British race as the noble descendants of the Trojan heroes of classical antiquity though the notion that Brutus founded Britain pre-dated Geoffrey’s account. The Britons were a superior race, according to his History, who fell into arrogance which lead to invasions by Picts and Saxons. They were subsumed into the Roman Empire in name only, having a superior culture and technology to their attackers and were liberated from the barbarian Saxons by their Norman cousins who shared a similar glorious link to a Trojan foundation.

It is clear that Geoffrey sought to vindicate the conquest and subsequent establishment of Norman rule and to suggest that it was a fortunate chapter in British history which would re-establish the glories of her mythical past and expunge the violent, pagan incursions of the Anglo-Saxon migrations after the fall of the her greatest kings.

Geoffrey was also keen to promote the idea of Britain as a unified kingdom, under one monarch and to suggest that it was part of British destiny, as prophesied by Merlin the seer who advises King Arthur, that Britain would once more become a whole nation and thrive as such, regaining the glories of the Arthurian ‘Golden Age’ of conquest beyond her shores too.

Geoffrey projected contemporary chivalric codes on to his account of King Arthur and his court (later medieval manuscript)

This vision also played to the Anglo-Norman ruling class who held lands in Normandy and sought to establish a wider Norman ’empire’ with eyes on expansion into other regions of France. Any such aspirations were dependent on a strong, centralised government with a stable ruler at the helm and whilst Matilda’s gender may have weighed against her, it was Matilda, not Stephen who had occupied the imperial throne and proven herself to be a capable regent for her first husband, ruling over vast domains on the continent. Why couldn’t Britain regain the glories of Geoffrey’s Arthurian past when, according to Geoffrey’s account, he conquered Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Brittany and Gaul? There is almost a glimpse of what we know as the ‘Angevin Empire’ that Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would briefly establish in Geoffrey’s vision.

Geoffrey’s quasi re-invention of King Arthur, from the earliest mentions of him in Nennius’s C9th writings as a ‘dux bellorum’, a post-Roman Christian war lord to a legendary king presiding over a splendid court with a mythical sword (referred to as Caliburn rather than Excalibur at this point) may well have been partly his own invention and partly an exercise in flattery towards Henry I’s own style of kingship. Henry was a cultured king who encouraged poets and writers and was considered to be well-educated by contemporary standards. He may have been destined for the church as a younger son of the Conqueror and thus educated for high office as much as for warfare.

Geoffrey’s writings link Arthur’s court with the developing concept of chivalry and strong, centralised kingship, military success and expansion and Christian piety; all of which might have been held as a mirror to Henry I’s court but Geoffrey also introduces a mystical element to his history of Arthur in the form of the seer Merlin and his prophesies. Here the history takes a detour which Geoffrey asserted was due to the urgings of Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, who Geoffrey also approached as a potential patron for his work, to include a long stream of Nostradamus style prophesies by Merlin about the future destiny of the British Isles.

Geoffrey would create a separate book, The Prophetie Merlini based on these writings which reinforce the idea of divine destiny and purpose running through the course of British history and may owe something to his Welsh roots and folk legends that he absorbed as a child growing up on the Welsh marshes.

Merlin and Vortigern

Some historians have suggested that Geoffrey never intended his work to be viewed as a serious history but rather a romance and history combined together with folk lore and prophesy. He may not have recognised the distinction between a historical account, based on source evidence, and his work certainly came under criticism from contemporary writers for it’s imaginative liberties.

Gerald of Wales suggested that, whilst the Bible would drive away demons, Geoffrey’s history was likely to draw more devils to it! William of Malmesbury was praised for his insistence on gathering eye witness sources for his writings as the same time as Geoffrey was inventing lost manuscripts and embellishing the legends of Arthur and Geoffrey seems to take a swipe at William and Henry of Huntingdon at the end of his book by warning them both not to attempt to write a similar history of the ancient kings of Britain as they lacked access to his unique source material. How much of that was the natural rivalry between scholastic writers and how much was tongue-in-cheek remains open to interpretation. They were all certainly vying with each other for patronage so there was clearly an element of professional one-upmanship going on too.

Whatever Geoffrey’s writings may lack in historical accuracy or gain from his attempts to weave a safe passage through the turbulent times in which he lived, his history was an instant hit and soon copies were being made across Europe. Henry of Huntingdon was amazed to find a copy at the Monastery of Bec in 1139, only shortly after it was first published and 200 copies of his work have survived to the modern day which is a testament to its popularity.

Geoffrey created a vision of the British Isles which left a lasting impression on readers; suggesting glorious mythical roots and a destiny that would see Britain become one of the most powerful nations in Europe. In a way, his writings predict what would become known as the Angevin Empire that would be established in the next generation and which grew out of the disruption and stalemate of the Anarchy which he lived through. He may have even been present at Oxford Castle during the fateful siege of 1142 and seen the Empress Matilda in the flesh during her time there but he would certainly have lived through the uncertainties and violence of the Anarchy when ‘God and his angels slept’ and no doubt experienced his fair share of fear and deprivation caused by the clash between the rival claimants to the throne.

Geoffrey’s signature is recorded on the Treaty of Westminster in his capacity as Bishop of St Asaph which concluded the terms at the end of the civil war and so he lived just long enough to see Matilda’s son become King of England which, I imagine, he was pleased to see come to fruition as it promised to usher in a period of stable government and peace for his country and the hope of expansion abroad through the marriage of Henry to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her vast holdings in the South of France.

His burial is unrecorded but I like to believe that Geoffrey’s remains may still be somewhere in Oxford, perhaps close to the site where he wrote his history and to all those later scholars who drew inspiration from his colourful writings.

List of useful links:

Did Geoffrey even exist?