Geoffrey of Monmouth

BnF, Latin 8501A, f. 108v
Portrait of King Arthur at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (BnF, Latin 8501A, f. 108v)

Biography

Geoffrey of Monmouth was an Anglo-Norman cleric and historian, active during the mid-12th century. Little is known about his life and career, though it is likely that he was educated on the Continent, perhaps at the school in Paris, and that he periodically lived and worked in Oxford. He was elected as bishop of the city of St Asaph in North Wales, four years before his death in around 1155. 

Historical writings

Geoffrey is principally known as the author of several influential Latin works, including the Prophetie Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin) and the Historia regum Brittaniae (History of the Kings of Britain), which he is thought to have written in the 1130s and 1140s. These texts were hugely popular all across western Europe during the medieval period and over 200 manuscripts of the Historia alone survive, many from the 12th century. 

The Historia is an account of the early history of Britain and its peoples, which Geoffrey claimed to have translated from an old ‘British’ book he had received from Walter, archdeacon of Oxford. The text begins with the arrival of Brutus, a descendant of the Trojan hero Aeneas, to the island of Albion, which he supposedly renamed after himself (‘Britain’). It then recounts the passage of a series of royal dynasties, before ending with the migration of the Saxons (c. 400) and the deeds of the last of the British kings, most notably Uther Pendragon and Arthur. Geoffrey’s work provides one of the first substantial treatments of the legendary figure’s life and reign and it continued to be a major source for writers of Arthurian literature, centuries after his death.

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