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Monmouth, Geoffrey of [Galfridus Arturus] (d. 1154/5), bishop of St Asaph and historian, is of obscure origins, and very little of substance is known about his life. Later historians, notably the author of the Welsh Brut, have assigned him many roles, some of which must be regarded as impossible (for example, monk of Monmouth and bishop of Llandaff) or at least highly unlikely (chaplain of Gloucester or chaplain of Monmouth). There is no reliable evidence for his date of birth, but it seems likely that he was born within ten years of 1100, and had reached adulthood no later than 1129, when his existence is first recorded as a witness to a charter.

Life and learning

Geoffrey's cultural background has occasioned some discussion, partly because it impinges on the relationship of his work to Celtic sources. Earlier generations of scholars thought of him as Welsh, or at least Welsh-speaking. He has been credited with Welsh paternity: contemporaries called him not Geoffrey of Monmouth but Geoffrey Arthur (Galfridus Arturus, or Galfridus Artur), which, if the Arturus is a patronymic, would suggest that Geoffrey's father bore a Welsh name. However, as Arturus does not appear in the form expected for a patronymic (the genitive case), this argument looks decidedly weak, and the name is usually regarded as a nickname reflecting Geoffrey's scholarly interests. Geoffrey himself laid claim to Celtic connections, using the toponymic Monemutensis—of Monmouth—and advertising two of his three works as translations. His grasp of the Welsh language has been shown to have been slight, however, and he is best located among the French-speaking élites settled on the Welsh border since 1066, to whose ranks belonged the distinguished authors Walter Map and Gerald of Wales. Monmouth had been held by Breton lords since William I granted it to Wihenoc before 1086, so it is possible that Geoffrey's ancestors were Breton rather than Norman, having originally settled on the border as part of the entourage of Wihenoc or his successor, William fitz Baderon.

Most, if not all, of Geoffrey's adult life must have been spent outside Wales, although the details remain very sketchy. Between 1129 and the time of his election to the see of St Asaph he can be traced periodically to the Oxford area, where he attested a number of charters in favour of local foundations. By 1139 he is sometimes styled magister, which indicates a level of learning unlikely to have been attained in England at this date. Geoffrey had probably been educated at Paris or one of the other continental schools, perhaps before his first attested connection with Oxford in 1129 when he appears, unstyled, in the witness list of the foundation charter of Osney Priory, an institution set up in that year. His occupation in Oxford remains unclear. Some have envisaged him as one of the small number of schools-educated teachers active in the city in the 1130s. Most agree in counting him among the canons of the church of St George in Oxford Castle. He witnessed charters in the company of another canon, Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, and appears among the witnesses to an alleged charter of Robert d'Oilly in favour of the canons of St George's. Although this latter document has been shown to be a forgery, Geoffrey's association with St George's should not be dismissed. Osney and Thame, two of the three institutions whose documents Geoffrey witnessed, enjoyed the patronage of the d'Oilly family, founders and patrons of St George's, who continued to influence appointments there until the second half of the twelfth century: Robert d'Oilly (d. 1142), sheriff of Oxfordshire, nephew and heir of the founder of the castle chapel of St George, founded Osney Priory in 1129, whose foundation charter Geoffrey witnessed, and his wife was a significant patron of Thame. In addition, Geoffrey dedicated his last work to a former canon of St George's, Robert de Chesney.

Friends and patrons

A handful of men can be identified as Geoffrey's friends and associates. Archdeacon Walter (d. 1151) of Oxford, who features as witness or issuing authority in all of the documents attested by Geoffrey in his lifetime, must be regarded as an influential friend. Geoffrey named Walter in the second chapter of his Historia regum Britanniae, describing him as a man learned in the rhetorical art and in exotic histories, who had supplied him with a key text, the ancient book in the British language that Geoffrey claimed to have translated into Latin. Ralph of Monmouth, who held a canonry at Lincoln, attests alongside Geoffrey in every charter in which he appears except the first, from 1129, and can therefore be counted another associate. The nature of Ralph's associations with Monmouth, like Geoffrey's, remains hazy, but it is at least possible that their association antedates their time at Oxford. Indeed, a patronage network may have extended from Monmouth into the west midlands of England. Geoffrey chose to dedicate his most important work, the Historia, to marcher magnates. The main dedicatee was Robert, earl of Gloucester (d. 1147), bastard son of Henry I, whose lands included Glamorgan and Gwynllŵg in south-east Wales, just west of Monmouth. In one version of the Historia, the dedication is shared with Robert's rival and neighbour, Waleran, count of Meulan (d. 1166), a man who would have offered Geoffrey the prospect of further powerful local patronage. Waleran's acquisition of the city of Worcester in 1135 and subsequently, in 1138, the earldom of the same name, has been interpreted as an attempt by the king to check Robert's power in his home territory. Geoffrey's career, like that of Ralph, was also influenced by the diocese of Lincoln within whose boundaries Oxford lay. Geoffrey dedicated the Prophetie Merlini (‘The prophecies of Merlin’), which form the core of his Historia, to Alexander, bishop of Lincoln (d. 1148). Geoffrey's last work, his Vita Merlini (‘Life of Merlin’), was offered to Alexander's successor, Robert de Chesney (d. 1166), whose charter in favour of Thame (refounded in 1139 by Alexander) Geoffrey witnessed as bishop-elect in 1152. Geoffrey's courting of Robert's favour has been interpreted as a desperate move to find new support after the death of Robert of Gloucester in 1147.

Political sympathies as well as geography may find reflection in the network of patronage that underlay Geoffrey's career. When war broke out between Matilda and Stephen in 1139 Geoffrey almost certainly found himself within the Angevin sphere of influence. From 1139 Robert of Gloucester led Matilda's cause in England. The lords of Monmouth were Robert's most powerful allies, and by 1140 Oxford offered a stronghold for Angevin sympathizers after another Breton lord, Brian fitz Count of Wallingford, had declared for Matilda. Robert d'Oilly was slow to come over to the Angevins but he did so in 1141, losing his life in 1142. Geoffrey had probably completed his Historia before Robert of Gloucester renounced his allegiance to Stephen in 1138. In fact, the allegiances of Geoffrey's chosen dedicatees provide the best indications for the dating of the Historia. While most copies bear a dedication to Robert alone, one manuscript is dedicated to Robert and King Stephen, and nine to Robert and Waleran. These dedications almost certainly predate Robert's rift with Stephen's party which dates from 1137, and suggest that the Historia was available in some form before 1138 (although not necessarily preserved in the texts prefaced by surviving examples of these dedications).

The best documented part of Geoffrey's life is its end. He gained election to the see of St Asaph, north Wales, on 24 February 1151 (his episcopal profession survives), having been ordained priest a week before. His appointment coincided with a period of extreme instability for the Anglo-Normans in Powys, the kingdom in which his diocese was situated. In 1149 Madog ap Maredudd, prince of Powys, took Oswestry, and in 1152 his son killed Stephen Fitzbaldwin, lord of Montgomery. Such inroads into regions of Anglo-Norman control in eastern Powys may have prevented Geoffrey from taking up residence in his see. Whatever the circumstances, Geoffrey did not live long after his elevation. He is usually held to have died between 25 December 1154 and 24 December 1155 when his presumed successor, Richard, took office (although doubts have been cast upon the date of Richard's episcopate).

The Prophetie Merlini

Geoffrey's posthumous fame depends entirely on his literary output. He is celebrated as the author of one of the most popular and influential historical works of the middle ages, the Historia regum Britanniae (‘The history of the kings of Britain’). Allegedly a translation from an ancient ‘British’ book, the Historia brought such figures as Arthur, Merlin, and kings Leir and Coel to an international Latin-reading public, and reached more widely still after translation into Anglo-Norman, French, English, Welsh, and Norse. The only one of his works in which Geoffrey declared his authorship, the Historia was in fact one of three works circulating in the middle ages that were connected with his name, the others being the hugely popular Prophetie Merlini (‘Prophecies of Merlin’), written, like the Historia, in Latin prose, and the less well-known Vita Merlini, composed in Latin verse. None of his writings can be dated precisely, but the Historia had been completed by 1139, and the others are presumed to have been written in the 1130s and 1140s. He has also been associated, purely speculatively, with the collection of spurious charters and saints' lives known as the Book of Llandaff, the Liber Landauensis, which was compiled in the 1130s.

The Prophetie Merlini has been called Geoffrey's earliest work. This series of increasingly obscure animal prophecies may date in its earliest form from the mid-1130s (an interpolated passage contains information about Henry I's death in 1135). Although Geoffrey claimed to have translated the Prophetie (from an unspecified, presumably Celtic, language), it contains transparent references to Anglo-Norman history and politics up to Geoffrey's own lifetime—for example the wreck of the White Ship in 1120 when Henry I's son and heir was killed—and little, if any, of his material can be regarded as inherited from Celtic sources. The Prophetie circulated widely as a self-standing text and bears its own dedication, to Alexander, bishop of Lincoln. However, it is far from clear whether it was written before the Historia, or was extracted from it later. Orderic Vitalis, writing c.1136–7, cites the prophecies as a Libellus Merlini, but as his text is close to that in the Historia, which was being completed at just that time, his testimony does not guarantee the prior and independent existence of the Prophetie.

The Historia regum Britanniae

Whenever it was completed, the Prophetie is best understood as part of Geoffrey's Historia, in which it occupies a key position. The Historia provides a vivid, uninterrupted account of the early history of Britain from the foundation of the island's population and monarchical tradition by Brutus, a Trojan émigré, via a series of royal dynasties, some of whose members enjoyed later fame, to the last glorious British kings, notably Uther Pendragon and Arthur, before the population of the island succumbed to Saxon aggression. Geoffrey concluded his work in approximately the seventh century AD, where Bede's Historia ecclesiastica begins as a continuous history (Geoffrey chose not to encumber his narrative with dates). Merlin's prophecies occur before the last, greatest, days of the British monarchy, but after the island has begun to be threatened by the Saxons, some time in the fifth century. Vortigern, who has usurped the throne of Britain, has built a tower to save himself from the Saxon fighters whose entry into his kingdom he had permitted. When the tower repeatedly collapses, he seeks advice from his court magicians and, when they advise him to find a fatherless boy, he locates in Wales one Merlin Ambrosius. Merlin tells him that the subsidence of the tower has been caused by a pool in which two dragons are sleeping. When Vortigern's men drain the pool the two dragons, one red, one white, begin to fight, and Merlin explains that the red dragon represents the British and the white the Saxons. He goes on to utter a long series of prophecies, beginning with the known—predicting the final part of Geoffrey's Historia, Anglo-Saxon history to the Norman conquest, Anglo-Norman history until the time in which Geoffrey was writing—and then moving into the unknown with a series of vague and apocalyptic prophecies.

The Vita Merlini

The last work attributed to Geoffrey, the Vita Merlini (‘Life of Merlin’), is the least securely associated with his name. A long Latin poem, the Vita describes Merlin's old age as a crazed and grief-stricken outcast in the Scottish woods. Some commentators have doubted Geoffrey's authorship. The Vita concerns a Merlin character, Merlin of the Woods (Merlinus Sylvestris) or the Scottish Merlin (Merlinus Caledonius), recognized as early as the 1150s as a figure distinct from the young Merlin of Geoffrey's earlier work (Merlinus Ambrosius). The external evidence for authorship is certainly late—a colophon appended to the only complete manuscript of the work, the late thirteenth-century BL, Cotton MS Vespasian E.iv. The opening lines of the poem name one Robert, bishop of Lincoln, as dedicatee, but Geoffrey's acquaintance from Oxford, Robert de Chesney, is not the only candidate: Robert Grosseteste (d. 1253) has also been suggested. However, for most critics these doubts have been outweighed by recognizably Galfridian elements in the construction and the details of the poem. Geoffrey would have written the Vita after Robert's elevation to Lincoln, and perhaps before his own elevation to St Asaph c.1151. The Vita Merlini apparently circulated poorly, but Geoffrey's earlier works—the Prophetie and the Historia—had already propelled Merlin, together with Arthur, into the mainstream of medieval historical literature.

The creation of legend: King Leir

Merlin and Arthur do at least have a recognized autonomy of identity outside Geoffrey's works. This can hardly be said of Leir [Lear] (supp. fl. c.820 BC), king of Britain, who must be regarded as arguably the most successful of Geoffrey's creations. Commentators have scoured Indo-European myth, Celtic literature, even the sixth-century history of Gregory of Tours (book 2, chapter 28, contains a story similar at some points), in the hope of finding a source for Geoffrey's Leir, but with no satisfactory outcome. Indeed, Tatlock described the Leir story ‘along with the vogue of Arthur’ as ‘Geoffrey's greatest contribution to the world’. Leir appears early in Geoffrey's Historia, in chapter 31, as the tenth ruler of Britain after Brutus. Finding himself old and without a male heir, he decides to provide for the succession by finding suitable husbands for his three daughters and dividing the kingdom between them. In order to establish the most deserving of his daughters, he asks each of the three who loves him most. Goneril and Regan protest that he is dearer to them than anyone; Cordeilla, the youngest, refuses to exaggerate her love and so incurs Leir's wrath and loses her share of the kingdom. Goneril and Regan marry the dukes of Albany and Cornwall and hold half the kingdom between them. However, instead of waiting to inherit the remainder at Leir's death, they usurp his power and reduce him to seeking hospitality at their courts. Both daughters resent the expense of his entourage and finally Leir seeks refuge with Cordeilla, now married (without dowry) to Aganippus, king of the Franks. Aganippus raises an army, ousts Leir's other sons-in-law, and restores Leir to his kingdom. On Leir's death Cordeilla inherits the throne of a united Britain.

Later medieval writers who took up the story seem to have relied on Geoffrey's version, which they embellished or abbreviated. Leir is mentioned in numerous Latin, French, English, and Welsh chronicles, from the earliest vernacular versions of Geoffrey's Historia by Wace (French, c.1155) and Layamon (English, c.1200), through Latin works like Matthew Paris's Chronica majora, into the printed chronicles of the sixteenth century—Robert Fabyan (1516), Richard Grafton (1568), Ralph Holinshed (1577)—and beyond—John Taylor (1622). In contrast to Arthur, Leir remained a sparsely documented figure until Elizabeth's time, when Edmund Spenser included the story in his Faerie queene. An anonymous play, the True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters, registered in 1605, has been attributed to about the same time, the years around 1590. William Shakespeare's King Lear, first performed at court in 1606, drew on Holinshed, Spenser, and the anonymous King Leir, but raised the story to a new plane. It is curious to reflect that its tragic hero, like many of the early kings in Geoffrey's Historia, may have started life as little more than an eponym: Geoffrey made Leir founder of Kaerleir (Leicester).

Contemporary and later responses

Both the Prophetie and the Historia enjoyed enormous popularity, reaching libraries all over western Europe. The reception of the Historia in particular has aroused curiosity, partly because of Geoffrey's apparently impossible claims to be translating from an ancient source, and partly because of the strikingly unhistorical nature of his subject matter. On both counts medieval readers faced fewer difficulties than their modern counterparts. The translation claim is best regarded as a literary topos. No British book has ever been found despite the efforts of scholars but other medieval ‘historical’ works, notably the very popular history of Troy ascribed to Dares the Phrygian (a translation from ‘Trojan’ into Latin), carried similar declarations of authenticity. Geoffrey's readers, too, would have been less surprised than modern readers by the historical panorama which his Historia offers: in embryo it existed in a work already in circulation, the Latin Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’) composed by an anonymous ninth-century Welsh cleric who, by Geoffrey's time, had become known as Nennius; it was in its scale, detail, and grandeur that Geoffrey's vision had no precedent.

The first datable reaction to the Historia comes from Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey's fellow historian and a fellow client of Alexander of Lincoln, who in 1139 travelled to Rome in the company of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury (d. 1161). Stopping on the way at the Norman monastery of Bec, he was shown the work by Robert de Torigni, another historian and later abbot of Mont-St Michel. Henry expressed his astonishment at finding an account of a period for which he had found no sources when researching his own Historia Anglorum and he provided a very full, only slightly edited, summary of the contents in a letter addressed to Warinus Brito (Guérin the Breton) which serves as a supplement and preface to his work. Two late twelfth-century writers, Gerald of Wales and William of Newburgh, launched diatribes against the Historia, primarily, it would seem, because of Geoffrey's treatment of Arthur, increasingly the focus for Celtic resistance against Norman encroachment, whose glorious life and mysterious death Geoffrey had endorsed. However, Geoffrey's work had already entered the historical canon on the continent and in England, and, as their exploitation of the story of Lear shows, historians, poets, and dramatists continued to plunder it until the sixteenth century. The fact that thereafter the Arthurian cycle was mediated primarily through the mid-fifteenth-century Morte d'Arthur of Sir Thomas Malory should not detract from the position of Geoffrey of Monmouth as its great originator.

J. C. Crick

Sources  

H. E. Salter, ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and Oxford’, EngHR, 34 (1919), 382–5 · L. Thorpe, ‘The last years of Geoffrey of Monmouth’, Mélanges de langue et littérature françaises du moyen âge offerts à Pierre Jonin (1979), 663–72 · M. D. Legge, ‘Master Geoffrey Arthur’, An Arthurian tapestry: essays in memory of Lewis Thorpe, ed. K. Varty (1981), 22–7 · J. E. Lloyd, ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth’, EngHR, 57 (1942), 460–68 · The Historia regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth, ed. N. Wright, 1: Bern, Bürgerbibliothek, MS 568 (1985) · ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini’, ed. J. S. P. Tatlock, Speculum, 18 (1943), 265–87 · J. C. Crick, The Historia regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth, 4: Dissemination and reception in the later middle ages (1991) · T. D. Crawford, ‘On the linguistic competence of Geoffrey of Monmouth’, Medium Ævum, 51 (1982), 152–62 · D. M. Smith, ‘The episcopate of Richard, bishop of St Asaph: a problem of twelfth-century chronology’, Journal of the Historical Society of the Church in Wales, 24 (1974), 9–12 · D. Crouch, ‘Robert, earl of Gloucester, and the daughter of Zelophehad’, Journal of Medieval History, 11 (1985), 227–43 · E. M. R. Ditmas, ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Breton families in Cornwall’, Welsh History Review / Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru, 6 (1972–3), 451–61 · O. J. Padel, ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth and Cornwall’, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 8 (1984), 1–28 · W. Perrett, The story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare (1904) · The tragedy of King Lear, ed. W. J. Craig, 4th edn (1905) · W. R. Elton, King Lear and the gods (1966) · W. W. Greg, ‘The date of King Lear and Shakespeare's use of earlier versions of the story’, The Library, 4th ser., 20 (1939–40), 377–400 · J. S. P. Tatlock, The legendary history of Britain: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae and its early vernacular versions (1950)

Archives  

BL, Cotton MS Vespasian E.iv