Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae


Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

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The Historia is, as Geoffrey Ashe observes, "the work that made Arthur a quasi-historical monarch with an 'official' biography. It is one of the most important books of the Middle Ages. Besides planting highly erroneous notions of British history, it supplied a basis and framework for Arthurian romance and exerted an influence extending through Spenser, Shakespeare, and many others" (Ashe 179). Indeed, the influence and reach of the Historia are vast, and its portrayal of Arthur as a conqueror-king proved particularly long-lasting. The Historia was written c. 1138, and the book is clearly proto-nationalistic in design, seeking both to glorify the ancestral rulers of Britain and to warn against the disunity that so often undid them. As Geraldine Heng notes, "the foundational myth and regnal geneology fashioned by the Historia devise an indispensable model, in culture, of an insular collectivity and political community that is specifically driven by continuity-through-disruption as its engine of historical development—thus producing the necessary conditions, and an indispensible matrix, for the future project of imagining England as a medieval nation" (Heng 58-59).

Of particular interest in the context of crusade memory and memorialization is the Historia's climactic account of Arthur's war with the Roman Emperor Lucius. By this point in the narrative, Arthur has already established himself as a conqueror bent on fashioning a global empire. He has brought under his control Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Gaul—where he personally defeats the ruler Frollo in single combat. Gaul is, at this point, still governed by Rome. Legates from Rome visit Arthur's court not long after this campaign, demanding both tribute and the return of previously Roman territory. Arthur refuses, amasses a loyal army, and journeys into France to battle with Lucius. Arthur's army is comprised of loyal and feudally-bound retainers, and Lucius's army is comprised of armies from the Mediterranean Basin, presumably bound by similar oaths:

Lucius Tiberius, on receiving this answer, by order of the senate published a decree, for the eastern kings to come with their forces, and assist in the conquest of Britain. In obedience to which there came in a very short time, Epistrophius, king of the Grecians; Mustensar, king of the Africans; Alifantinam, king of Spain; Hirtacius, king of the Parthians; Boccus, of the Medes; Sertorius, of Libya; Teucer, king of Phrygia; Serses, king of the Itureans; Pandrasus, king of Egypt; Micipsa, king of Babylon; Polytetes, duke of Bithynia; Teucer, duke of Phrygia; Evander, of Syria; æthion, of Boeotia; Hippolytus, of Crete, with the generals and nobility under them. Of the senatorian order also came, Lucius Catellus, Marius Lepidus, Caius Metellus Cotta, Quintus Milvius Catulus, Quintas Carutius, and as many others as made up the number of forty thousand one hundred and sixty. (Camelot Project)
Later versions of this narrative (such as the version found in the Alliterative Morte Arthure) will alter these two armies in ways that make Arthur the clear moral and regnal superior to Lucius. While it is true that in the Historia Arthur is an emperor in his own right while Lucius is a procurator who must answer to the Roman Senate, the armies which they command are strictly parallel in nature; both are comprised of loyal retainers who are identified by name and territory. It is clear that Arthur and Lucius are equally matched, making Arthur's victory over Lucius all the more significant. Nevertheless, the influx of foreign "others" into distinctly Christian territory in the Historia is clearly coded as unacceptable, and the army of Lucius is brutally defeated as a result.

Geoffrey wrote the Historia c. 1136, only a few decades after the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and well before the unsuccessful Second Crusade (1147-49). It is therefore unsurprising that certain "exotic" flourishes exist in the text, but they do not ring with the same ominious significance that they do in later Middle English treatments of this story. John S. Tatlock has inventoried many of these references and explores, among other matters, the names of the leaders under Lucius' command, noting that many can be found in crusades chronicles. Al-Mustansir, for instance

is the name of three Moslem rulers before Geoffrey's time. Two were in southern Spain—one a caliph in Cordova in the later tenth century . . . , the other a minor king in Malaga in the earlier eleventh. The third is Abu Tamim M'add al-Mustansir [bi-llah], eight Fatimide Caliph of Egypt (or Cairo or Babylon), from A.D. 1036 to 1094 . . . Alifatima is more curious. No such person is known in Spain or anywhere. But the name is merely a combination of Ali and Fatima, the names of Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law and of his daughter. (Tatlock 206- 07).
Furthermore, he notes, Ali and Fatima were of particular significance in Egypt as the term Fatimid was used by numerous medieval Arabic writers to describe the Muslim dynasty in Egypt at the time. Tatlock argues that awareness of Egyptian culture (both religious and politcial), particularly after the first crusade, could have easily made their way into English awareness, for while the English were not particularly conspicuous presence on the First Crusade, they were far from absent (210). The other names, Tatlock observes, can be easily located in classical historiography. This collection of countries represents "the whole Roman Empire (except northwards), at the time of its greatest extent, from Spain, the Africans, Lybia, Egypt, Babylonia, Crete, the Greeks, Boeotia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Syria, the Ituraeans, to the Parthians and the Medes (213)

Though Tatlock suggests that Geoffrey sought , by including these names, to tie Arthur to a particular historical date by including actual figures from classical history, it is also clear that Geoffrey responded, by inclusions of certain eastern names, to more immediate foreign rulers, ones whose names might well have evoked crusading concerns. In particular are names of the Greek, Boetian, and Cretan rulers who—at the time of Geoffrey's writing as well as at the time of the First Crusade and afterwards—were subject "to the Orthodox Church and to the Byzantine Emperor, whose relation then to the West was never really friendly and often hostile, and then regarded in the West as more hostile than it was . . . Further, each of these very names except one appears in a living guise in the accounts of the first crusade, which was fought from Constantinople to Egypt and involved many outlying peoples, and in accounts of the affairs of the Latin states in Syria" (217-18).

Another scholar, Lawrence Warner, has noted other "powerful crusading connotations" in the Historia (21). For example, Warner observes that Geoffrey clearly sought to curry favor with certain Anglo-Norman nobles who had close ties to the campaigns of the First Crusade in his writing of the Historia:

The manuscripts of the Historia record four forms of dedications: one omits the names, the others are to Robert, Earl of Gloucester; to Robert and Waleran, Count of Meulan; and to King Stephen I and Robert. All three of these figures had close ties to the crusade. Stephen was the son of Stephen of Blois (who infamously fled the sack of Antioch, but redeemed himself by taking the cross again in 100); both Stephen and Robert were nephews of Robert of Normandy and cousins of Robert of Flanders two other major leaders of the First Crusade. Both the Norman Conquest and the crusade, after all, were instrumental to the papacy's reformist programs, the former even being declared a holy war by the pope's grant of the banner. Moreover, a 'unitary sense of Frankishness became an element of crusade ideology,' leading Marcus Bull to identify 'interesting parallels here with the manner in which the conquest of England was retrospectively explained and justified by notions of Norman prowess and readiness to fight for the church. (21-22)
Warner sees Britain as the replacement for Jerusalem as the site of Christian desire in the Historia (25); this "de-Judaizing" of the crusade, he argues, reaches its pinnacle in the story of Arthur and Lucius. He and Tatlock both agree that this fictive war is "an inverted crusade . . . with reigning sovereigns of various peoples allied to recover an alienated region. On the other hand, Arthur, fighting the orientals, has himself the nimbus of a crusader without ever leaving the Atlantic" (220). According to Warner and Tatlock, the heroes of this segment are cast as crusaders, their enemies rendered in Islamic terms.

All the same, the armies of Lucius and the armies of Arthur are strikingly parallel—more so than they are in the Alliterative Morte Arthur or in Malory, where Arthur gathers allies and Lucius hires mercenaries. In Geoffrey, but also in Wace and Layamon's later version, both rulers bring feudally bound lords and their armies under a single banner to fight for their respective empire. Lucius' lords, moreover, are also given names in these three earlier versions, whereas they are referred to merely as lords of a particular region in the AMA and Malory. These comparisons may reveal that a significant shifting of anxieties over the East and Islam occurs after the time of the Historia 's composition. The invasion of Saracenic forces into France—by the time in which the AMA was composed—would have possessed entirely different interpretive potentialities than during the time in which Geoffrey wrote the Historia.

A note on Wace and Layamon:

Wace wrote an Anglo-Norman adaptation of Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae, c. 1155 . Layamon, in turn, wrote a Middle-English adaptation of Wace's Roman de Brut c. 1190. The stories of Arthur contained in these three versions are essentially the same. James Noble successfully outlines the more salient textual and cultural differences between the versions but, by and large, the references and emphases on crusading are not so dramatically changed as to warrant separate entries on those two works. As mentioned previously, the names of the Eastern rulers are left in tact, many of them are highlighted in various descriptive segments of the war, and Arthur, in each version, attempts to expand his empire even further after successfully defeating Lucius. The emphasis in all three versions lies on Britain as terra sancta—per Warner's argument—though Noble rightly points out that Wace tones down the British nationalism in his source materials considering that he wrote for an Norman audience.


Well over two hundred surviving manuscripts of the Historia exist. The interested scholar can find a complete list of these manuscripts in the following catalogue: Crick, Julia C. The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth. III. A Summary Catalogue of the Manuscripts. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1989.

Selected Editions:

Reeve, Michael D., ed. The History of the Kings of Britain: An Edition and Translation of De Gestis Britonum. Trans. Neil Wright. Rochester: Boydell, 2007.

Griscom, Acton and Robert Ellis Jones. The Historia Regum Britanniae of Geoffrey of Monmouth. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1929.

Thorpe, Lewis. The History of the Kings of Britain. London: The Folio Society, 1984.

Wright, Neil, ed. The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985-.

Critical Works:

Ashe, Geoffrey. "Geoffrey of Monmouth." The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. Ed. by Norris J. Lacy. New York : Garland Pub., 1996.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York : Columbia University Press, 2003.

Lynch, Andrew. "Imperial Arthur: Home and Away." In The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend. Ed. Elizabeth Archibald and Ed Putter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009: 171-87.

Noble, James. "Patronage, Politics, and the Figure of Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, and Layamon. " In The Arthurian Yearbook, II. Ed. Keith Busby. New York: Garland, 1992. Pp. 159-78.

Tatlock, John S. P. "Certain Contemporaneous Matters in Geoffrey of Monmouth." Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 6:2 (1931): 206-24.

Warner, Lawrence. "Geoffrey of Monmouth and the De-Judaized Crusade." Parergon: Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 21:1 (2004): 19-37.