The History of the Kings of Britain, completed in 1136 by a man known as Geoffrey of Monmouth, is admired for popularizing the legends of Merlin and King Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tales inspired romantic writers throughout Europe to write Arthurian stories of knighthood and chivalry. You can read about that aspect of The History of the Kings of Britain, HERE. In this article, however, let’s look at something even more interesting—the outlandish claims of conquest that Geoffrey of Monmouth attributed to the ancient Britons. Even though almost every page in The History of the Kings of Britain has to be read with extreme caution in terms of historical accuracy, the work was so well written that the bizarre ‘history’ is highly enjoyable and entertaining.
One of the first major historical events that Geoffrey of Monmouth tweaked in favor of the Britons was the sack of Rome around 390 BCE. In the historical version of the sack of Rome by the Gauls, the Senones tribe led by their chief, Brennus, besieged and pillaged the city of Rome. After the Romans surrendered to the Gauls, they also had to hand over a lot of their wealth. This traumatic event is considered one of the key events that inspired Rome to dramatically develop their military. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of this event, however, Chief Brennus was a Briton who had lost his position in Britain to his older brother Belinus, who had also managed to subjugate Norway. Brennus then fled to Gaul, where he was made chief of the Senones. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, after Belinus and Brennus had a few more wars amongst themselves, the two joined forces to invade Rome, leading to the sack of the great city.
Now for the Arthurian stories. Geoffrey of Monmouth seems to place King Arthur’s father, Utherpendragon, in the 5th and 6th century CE, and his adventures mainly revolve around wars between the Britons and the Saxons. Geoffrey placed King Arthur in the 6th century, after King Clovis of the Franks had become Catholic, and he was given a much more elaborate string of conquests in The History of the Kings of Britain.
Geoffrey of Monmouth basically left nothing untouched by King Arthur—he wrote that Arthur went to war in Britain with the Saxons, the Picts, the Scots and the Irish. He also apparently subdued Iceland, Gotland, Gunhpar, the Orkneys and somehow subjugated all of Norway and Denmark. Then Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that Arthur invaded Gaul (which would have historically been controlled mostly by the Franks), taking Normandy, Gascony and Aquitania. Next, the Romans arrived to challenge King Arthur (even though the Western Roman Empire had already fallen by the 6th century CE) and the Roman army also fell to Arthur’s Britons. Just when all of Europe seemed ready to fall to the might of the Britons, Mordred rebelled against King Arthur. While suppressing the rebellion, Arthur was injured and was carried away to Avalon, where he disappeared.
So, as you can tell, Geoffrey of Monmouth was very creative with his book, The History of the Kings of Britain. To end with a corny conclusion, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book only had tiny tidbits of real history mixed into a gigantic soup of fiction and myth—yet, despite it all; it was a very delicious and enjoyable soup.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966.