The Roman de Brut by Wace is the earliest surviving vernacular chronicle of British history written in Norman French. It is named after ‘Brutus’, who was the legendary founder and first king of Britain. Its author, Wace, was born on the island of Jersey, in the Channel Islands, some time after 1100 and he died between 1174 and 1183. Some have suggested that he was of noble birth, but there isn’t much evidence for this.
What is the Roman de Brut about?
According to Laȝamon, the 13th-century poet who translated Wace’s work into early Middle English, Wace composed his chronicle for Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204), the wife of Henry II. Wace calls his work a translation, but it actually uses a variety of sources. It is mainly based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1138 work, Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). The chronicle is a pseudo-history of Britain, beginning with its legendary founding. The chronicle contains a lot of material concerning the legendary King Arthur, including the earliest reference to Arthur’s Round Table.
The work was finished in 1155, and some scholars have suggested that the cultural context in which Wace wrote informed the work. Wace wrote at a time of political instability; Henry II had just come to the throne, after years of civil war. Henry may have wanted to portray himself as a successor to King Arthur and thus received the work appreciatively.
This manuscript was made much later than the original text. It was copied between 1325 and 1350, probably near Gloucester or South Wales. It contains nearly 100 coloured pen drawings, which are noted for their expressive faces.
Earliest known image of Stonehenge
The manuscript also contains the earliest known image of Stonehenge (f. 30r – digitised image 5). The chronicle describes how King Aurelius decides to erect a monument to British fighters killed by the Saxons. The wizard, Merlin, suggests that Aurelius should create a stone circle like one in Ireland known as the ‘dance of the giants’. With Aurelius’s blessing, Merlin leads the British men to Ireland:
Merlin, qi ert en la compaigne
Les mena en une muntaine
U la carole esteit assise
As gaianz, qui’il aveient quise
[Merlin, who was in their company,
led them to a mountain
where they found the dance of
the giants, which they had been searching for]
The king’s men then try to move the stones, so that they may bring them to England to erect the monument. When the stones prove to be immoveable, Merlin performs magic to allow them to be picked up and carried to the waiting ships.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.
- Full title:
- Roman de Brut, with continuation to Edward III; La Destruction de Rome; Fierabras
- 1325–1350, England
- Norman French
- Usage terms
Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.
- Held by
- British Library
- Egerton MS 3028
- Article by:
- David Crystal
- Language and voice
David Crystal charts the evolution of Old English through the 700 years during which it was written and spoken.
- Article by:
- Alexander Wragge-Morley
Alexander Wragge-Morley examines Inigo Jones’s theory that Stonehenge was a temple built by the Romans.
- Article by:
- Sam Smiles
- Antiquarianism, Country, Science and nature
Britain's prehistoric landscapes are depicted in prints and drawings across the British Library's collections. Sam Smiles, Emeritus Professor of Art History, University of Plymouth, explores further.