Tag Archives: Geoffrey of Monmouth

Seminar CCXI: two medievalist myth-makers

As you may have noticed, things have calmed down enough that I am beginning to have time to blog again, but I am nonetheless currently a year and two days behind still. I’m not apologising, so much as explaining that I still have a certain amount of Birmingham stuff to report on that still seems worthwhile, and the first of them is last year’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Public Lecture, which was given by Dr Carl Phelpstead with the title, “Geoffrey of Monmouth and J. R. R. Tolkien: myth-making and national identity in the twelfth and twentieth centuries”.

Cover of Lewis Thorpe's translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

Cover of Lewis Thorpe’s translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae

Covers of the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

Covers of the first edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

You may well look at that and wonder where the comparison could lie between these two figures, I mean, apart from being internationally-famous writers of fantasy literature that was translated into many languages who were born outside England but finished up with jobs in Oxford obviously.1 And indeed I steal that hook straight from Dr Phelpstead’s lecture but there is, he was arguing, more to the comparison even than that, in that they were both at some level out to create a new national myth that was like, but not ultimately based in, history. The comparison only goes so far in this direction, of course, since as far as we clearly understand what Geoffrey of Monmouth was up to it was to reinsert Britonnic heroes and the past of his Welsh nation into the longer history of the kingdom that was now England, and he seems to have done this cleverly enough to be liked and read in equal measure by those who identified against the English and those like King Henry II who wanted it to be clear how the perhaps-separate histories of the British and English nations were now united, indissolubly, under one obedience, namely to him.2 Tolkien, on the other hand, was apparently dubious about the meaning of Britain as a construct, identified fairly firmly as English and when pushed as Mercian, and reportedly told his son in a letter that if he was anything he was Hwiccian, a marginal identity par excellence but not one with a great deal of meaning attached outside Anglo-Saxonist circles perhaps.3 In this light, it is notable (said Dr Phelpstead, but it seems to be right to me) that except when there is a war afoot, admittedly for most of the Lord of the Rings cycle, the various races of Middle Earth normally leave each other alone and certainly have no shared or overruling government.

Obviously, we have a lot more material from which to gauge Tolkien’s intentions than we do for Geoffrey’s, and the most interesting thing about this lecture for me was those snippets of the author before The Lord of the Rings became the thing for which he was mostly known, indeed before it existed. These suggest that what he was after to provide a missing English epic, something to make up for the fact that England (definitely England) has no sagas, no equivalent to the Kalevala and so on. Like those, it would not need to be historical, but it would need to be in keeping, and for Tolkien at least, express what he called, “a certain truth” about the nation whose culture he aimed thus to supplement. For Dr Phelpstead this was also a point of junction between the two authors: Geoffrey’s ‘certain truth’ was that the history of the island was really that of its older inhabitants, for Tolkien it was more about the quality of heroism and determination in the cause of peace, but the aim to put across a deeper message in their stories was there. Of course, Tolkien knew Geoffrey’s work but precisely because of its British agenda it wouldn’t serve as a basis for his own. In the event, of course, neither did England, and in fact neither did Britain for Geoffrey; both epics escape national confines fairly dramatically and transcend into something that appealed to readers of a great many more nationalities than the target ones, in ways neither author could easily have foreseen.

Pages from an illuminated edition of Tolkien's Silmarilion

Of course, of course someone has done this, this being a hand-illuminated edition of Tolkien’s Silmarilion. There is an interview with the artist, Benjamin Harff, here.

I’m not sure, going back over this, that the comparison here actually yields new insights about either Geoffrey or Tolkien; I learnt a lot about Tolkien and something about Geoffrey from this paper, but more separately than together. The curmudgeon in me wants to cite Chris Wickham’s demand that historical comparison must have a meaningful object to be worth doing, but a public lecture can perhaps be allowed to be entertainment for the brain rather than world-changing insight, and of course I’m not a literature scholar and every now and then I get reminded that things are different over that fence.4 The important thing about this lecture was therefore probably that I enjoyed it and learnt things, and it tided well for the seminar programme ahead.


1. It has subsequently become clear to me that I have, for the last few years, been proceeding around Tolkien’s career itinerary in the wrong order: he grew up in Birmingham, studied and got his first job in Oxford, went from there to a Readership at Leeds and then returned to Oxford as a professor. I’m now slightly worried lest I have to balance all this out by dying in South Africa, where he was born.

2. In so far as I didn’t learn all this from the Internet and seminar papers by John Gillingham, I think that I have it from David Dumville, “An early text of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and the circulation of some Latin histories in twelfth-century Normandy” in Arthurian Literature Vol. 4 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 1-36, repr. with addenda in Dumville, Histories and Pseudo-Histories of the Insular Middle Ages, Collected Studies 316 (Aldershot 1990), XIV, and Nicholas Higham, “Historical Narratives as Cultural Politics: Rome, ‘British-ness’ and ‘English-ness'” in idem (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007), pp. 68-79. But mainly John and the Internet are to blame.

.3. Tolkien’s letters are partly published as Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher Tolkien (edd.), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: a selection (London 1981), whence this kind of information was largely drawn.

4. But it would be curmudgeonly, so I won’t.

This post was written with the aid of Moon Healing Activation by Das Ludicroix, and jolly effective it was too.

Seminar CLXXXIV: making sense of Cerdic after Arthur

Returning after the pleasant trip abroad lately described to my seminar report backlog, the 2nd October 2013 saw me back in Senate House for the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar, because it was being given by Professor John Gillingham and that always bodes well. His title was “Richard of Devizes and the Annals of Winchester“, which was the only way in which this paper disappointed, as it had been advertised under the title “When Cerdic Met Arthur”. As John immediately pointed out, that never actually happened, “because they didn’t exist”, but in the period that John has made most his own, the twelfth century in England, that was of course not the general understanding, and the paper was about one particularly creative attempt to make that understanding make sense.

A romantic depiction of King Arthur

A suitably romantic depiction of King Arthur

The problem is Arthur, of course, whose history had grown from the twelve battles of its ninth-century genesis to the blockbuster of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work.1 Fitting that around the surviving contemporary sources from the Anglo-Saxon side of the mythical frontier, especially the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Gildas’s On the Ruin of Britain, both of which inconsiderately fail to mention the British high king, thus proved something of a challenge, and while some historians like William of Malmesbury did it by more or less dismissing Geoffrey’s work as fiction as we now do, others made more effort to find places in the Matter of England where the Matter of Britain might fit, and this is what led the writer behind the hardly-known Annals of Winchester, probably Richard of Devizes, to set up the meeting of John’s abandoned title.2

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9

Screen capture of the lower part of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 339 fo. 9, showing the annal for 519 and also some of the marginal synchronisms, as well as a rather fine but inexplicable doodle

The Annals are edited only from the year 519 onwards, where they say that Cerdic ruled in England while Arthur was fighting in Gaul and died before he returned to fight Mordred, but the actual manuscripts (of which one now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, appears to be an autograph) have an extensive bit before this that tries to reconcile and synthesize several previous attempts to gel the two traditions.3 From Henry of Huntingdon (and ultimately from Gildas, I suppose) he borrowed the idea that the Saxons eventually defeated the British resistance by sheer pressure of immigration, and so he had Cerdic attack again and again until Arthur gave him a fief in Hampshire that the Saxon leader named Wessex. The Chronicle would have liked Cerdic to be a contemporary with the even-more-legendary Hengest,4 but Richard here preferred the Chronicle‘s later date for Cerdic’s arrival, and this he seems to have got from Gaimar’s Estoire de Anglais, whence he also borrowed a Duke Chelricus of the Saxons, with whom he had Cerdic revolt against Arthur at the impulse of Mordred, no less, from whom Cerdic got a considerable expansion of his Wessex, up as far as Kent, although Kent itself went to Chelricus along with Northumbria, that is, Hengest’s lands in the earlier versions of the story. Richard gave Mordred a seven-year reign after which he was killed by the returned Arthur in traditional Galfridian style, and then the text switches more or less firmly to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with the chronologies all now meshed.

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

British Library, MS Royal 13 D v, fo. 1, the opening page of a copy of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, the winner and undisputed champion in this historiographical bout by a series of knockouts

This is arguably to have out-Geoffried Geoffrey, and it seems as if it didn’t travel well, as there are only two manuscripts, and in the fine copy of the two the copyist has borrowed much more of Geoffrey straight. It seems that Richard’s attempt to come up with a version that could have happened, according to what was then understood, failed against the pressure of the version that was already accepted, i. e. Geoffrey’s, and although Richard’s version has the effect of boosting the status of the Cerdicine line (which he draws back to Brutus to match that of the Britons) and various other interesting political takes, it’s still not clear (as came out in discussion) that it was ever written for an audience of more than one (the Annals are dedicated to a ‘Master Adam’ who is unknown).5 John was keen to emphasise that he had not finished with this text, but it already appealed to me because I remember, as a first-year undergraduate, trying exactly this game of getting all the various sources’ dates for early Anglo-Saxon history onto a single sheet of paper and then trying to work out a version that would let them all be true, and it was fun to see that I had unwittingly had such a predecessor…


1. The creation of an Arthurian history is usefully anthologised in Richard White (ed.), King Arthur in Legend and History (London 1997).

2. My notes don’t seem to recall on what basis the authorship of the Annals is assigned to Richard, but I seem to have accepted it, so I’m going to assume that John sounded reasonable on this score, even though I can imagine his rush to dismiss the idea as I write that…

3. Henry Richard Luard (ed.), Annales monastici, Rolls Series 36 (London 1864-1869), 5 vols, II pp. 3-128, online here. I asked why Luard didn’t do the earlier portion and the answer seems to be that he started at the top of a page in the second manuscript and for some reason thought what came before was a different work!

4. On the two Cerdics of the Chronicle, see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Steven Bassett (ed.), The Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

5. As a sample of the other fun things Richard did in this text that presumably had a purpose, he has King Harold II survive the Battle of Hastings and run off to join Arthur in eternal waiting sleep on the Isle of Avalon (presumably along with Brán the Blessed’s head and the spirit of British industry), and he has Britain converted to Christianity by Joseph of Arimathea, thus meaning that when the Romans invade they are pagans attacking Christians!