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Geoffrey of Monmouth

Geoffrey’s real name is suggested to be ‘Grufydd ab Arthur’, living during the twelfth-century (c.AD1100-54). Although his biography is somewhat scant of detail, it is thought that Geoffrey of Monmouth was either the son of Breton parents, or a Welshman. The former is thought to be more likely, with a sympathy to the Welsh.

He is known as a Welsh chronicler and ecclesiastic, who studied at Oxford, England (UK). Geoffrey was appointed ‘Archdeacon of Llandarff’ in c.AD1140, and later of ‘Monmouth’. He is also known to have progressed to be the ‘Bishop of St. Asaph’ in AD1152.

The first and earliest known work connected with Geoffrey of Monmouth focusing on the Arthurian legends is that of early AD1130, when he is credited with writing ‘The Prophecies of Merlin’, which contains portents relating to this fifth-century figure beyond the twelfth-century.

Geoffrey’s third poetic work is entitled ‘Vita Merlini’, The Life of Merlin, believed to have been written in c.AD1150, and seen as a biography of the adult life of Merlin. Here Merlin is referred to as ‘Rex erat et vates’,  King and a prophet. There is little evidence in this work to associate Merlin with any firm Druid practice or training, but it does indicate some of the more well known Druid customs and personages.

Having already developed the character of Merlin in his own work, Geoffrey is thought responsible for introducing us to the heroic Arthurian character of ‘Merlin’ in his most well known form, previously known in Celtic legend as the Welsh bard ‘Myrddim’. Many say that this version of Merlin has strong Norman and Welsh sympathies. Geoffrey develops the relationship of ‘Igerna’, the wife of ‘Gerlois, the Duke of Tintagel and Cornwall’, and the King’s brother ‘Uther Pendragon’. He also refers to the coastal settlement of Tintagel, Cornwall, England (UK), as being the place where Arthur was reputed to have been conceived.

The second work and perhaps the most popular book of its time, the ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’, a History of the Kings of Britain, was probably written during his time at Oxford, and thought to have been completed in c.AD1137 but widely available in AD1147. It was dedicated to the legitimate son of ‘Henry I’,‘Robert, the Earl of Gloucester’. The preface of one of the earlier versions of this book contains a statement believed to have been written by Geoffrey saying that he ‘turned this book from Kymraeg to Latin and in my old age retranslated it from Latin to Kymraeg’. Kymraeg meaning here the Welsh language. We can assume then Geoffrey first wrote this compilation in Welsh before going on to write in Latin for wider circulation. The reason for the additional translation is unclear, except that perhaps this was as a result of his liaison with Walter Map during the latter stages of his work on Arthurian history and legend, bringing together further work of Breton origin to edit the original Latin text.

The Historia Regum Britanniae has been said to be a fictitious account of Arthur, but also that it appears to be a new approach to circulating and interpreting the Welsh Chronicles, the ancient Celtic, Cymric/Kymric practices and legends. It was written as an attempt to trace the descent of the Kings of Britain to the ancient Trojans, though possibly more as a result of an attempt to appease the Norman’s. Although the historical accuracy and validity of this work in question the Historia Regum Britannaie does provide us with an insight into the chivalric associations and romantic legends built to expand the historical figure of Arthur. It is thought to be a romantic account of Arthur’s actions and travels, but is seen to be important to European literature, perhaps having influenced future developments of the Arthurian legends, particularly those of the French.

Geoffrey of Monmouth presents a majestic Arthur, complete with magical sword ‘Caliburn’, a ‘Dragon helmet’ and a ‘Dragon banner’. He describes Arthur as a man who was loved by almost all the people. Here Arthur is reported to have fought with success in the north of Britain against the Saxons, and again when they re-appeared in the South West (UK) where Arthur attacked to break up the ‘Siege of Bath’, a crusade against the Pagans. Arthur appears as defender of Christianity, driving out pagan heresy, conquering Denmark, Norway and Gaul. Arthur is seen as a victor and oversaw twelve years of peace. Geoffrey locates Arthur’s come in ‘Caerleon’, with a great court, a match for any in Rome, where trading and tournaments took place. Arthur is depicted as planning to conquer Rome when he was subject to the treachery of ‘Mordred’, and also of ‘Guinevere’. Arthur engages in the fatal ‘Battle of Camlan’ with his nephew Mordred, who is slain and Arthur mortally wounded. Arthur is taken to the Isle of Avalon to have his injuries attended to. We are not told Arthur dies but in fact Geoffrey strongly hints that one day Arthur would return to save the Britons. The possibility of Arthur returning provided the Normans with the opportunity to gain support for ousting the Saxons and removing Britain out of their control.

Geoffrey is believed to have been influenced in his later writing by his collaboration with Walter Map who was in the process of researching ancient legend and history for his own work ‘De Nugis Curialum’, ‘Of Courtier’s Trifles’. Map was also a Welsh man and a clerk to ‘Henry II’ which may have assisted in supporting the validity of Geoffrey’s work but this is speculation.

Geoffrey and Map are thought largely responsible for the introduction of the concept of chivalry and manners to Arthurian legend. Map is known to have introduced Geoffrey to a Breton book, written in the British language, that contained many ancient customs and stories, including that of Arthurian connection, which is thought to have aided his development of tracing the ancestral line of the British Kings. It is said that only those who had some knowledge of Kymric could understand and interpret the content of this Breton book (the title of which is uncertain). Map is thought to have influenced the introduction of a Norman vision of Arthur in Arthurian legend, and that it was may have been Map who first led Geoffrey to make firm the associations of Arthur with Christianity, with Arthur then seen to be the embodiment of the perfect Christian Knight.