Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of King Lear in History of the Kings of Britain


Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100–1154) was a scholar and probably also a monk, educated in Monmouth and living in Oxford. He was in later life Bishop of St Asaph. He wrote the work Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1140) in Latin, which tells the ‘history’ of Britain from its founding by the Trojan Brutus up to the death of King Arthur and the return of the Saxons. Geoffrey claimed to have translated it from a ‘very old book in the British tongue’, but really he seems to have collected various chronicle, biblical, classical and folk stories – and possibly even included some of his own invention too – in order to create a British history. The work establishes the Arthurian legend and numerous other myths of British history. In the first half of the 16th century, some scholars started to express scepticism about Geoffrey’s reliability as a historian, but Historia Regum Britanniae nevertheless remained an important and influential work.

In Shakespeare’s day, the work was widely available in Latin manuscript. It had also been translated into Norman French. This manuscript, Cotton MS Nero D VIII, was created in England in the last quarter of the 12th century, with a possible Colchester provenance. It is written in Latin, with its large capitals in red and green ink with scrolled/leafy decoration. In the late-16th or early-17th century, the manuscript was owned by the historian and antiquarian John Stow.

Geoffrey of Monmouth as a source for King Lear

The Historia contains the earliest known version of the story of King Leir and was a source for many later retellings, such as Holinshed and The True Chronicle History of King Leir. As such it could either have been a direct or an indirect source for Shakespeare’s King Lear.

Full title:
Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Britannie
c. 1175–1200
Geoffrey of Monmouth, unknown [scribe]
Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Held by
British Library
Cotton MS Nero D VIII

Full catalogue details

Related articles

The legends of King Arthur

Article by:
Hetta Elizabeth Howes
Heroes and heroines

Hetta Howes tracks the many appearances of King Arthur, from a 9th-century history to a Hollywood blockbuster, via the works of Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Malory and the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The Reformation in Shakespeare

Article by:
Brian Cummings
Power, politics and religion, Shakespeare’s life and world

Brian Cummings explores the radical religious reforms enacted in Shakespeare's lifetime, and the traces of religion that exist in his plays from Measure to Measure to Hamlet.

Royal Shakespeare: a playwright and his king

Article by:
Andrew Dickson
Power, politics and religion, Tragedies

Shortly after James I took the throne, he announced that he would be the new sponsor of Shakespeare's theatre company, which renamed itself the King's Men. Andrew Dickson explains how the royal sponsorship affected the company, and the ways in which the playwright's later works engage with his transition from an Elizabethan to a Jacobean subject.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

King Lear

Created by: William Shakespeare

King Lear is a tragedy based on the chronicle history of a pre-Roman, Celtic king of Britain. In Shakespeare’s ...