Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The History That Never Happened: Geoffrey of Monmouth

By Rosanne E. Lortz

What’s the proper ratio of fact to fiction? It’s a common discussion among writers of historical fiction. Some authors feel bound to honor every known fact and only invent material where the historical record is silent. Others use history as a rough guideline and let their imaginations run wild. Some sit solidly on the historical side of the spectrum while others fly their flag more freely in the opposing field of fiction.

But in both cases, historical novelists’ books meet the requirements of their genre. They are, to a greater or lesser degree, inspired by and based on the actual events of history, but no one mistakes them for history itself. No one looks for historical novels in the nonfiction section of the bookstore.

Geoffrey of Monmouth lived in the twelfth century, an age where distinctions like history and historical fiction had yet to be drawn. His book, The History of the Kings of Britain, traced the history of Britain from its alleged establishment by Brutus to the arrival of the Saxons some two thousand years later. It drew from previous historical records like Gildas’ On The Destruction and Conquest of Britain and Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (which I discussed in an earlier post), but it also incorporated a great deal of material from the fertile ground of Geoffrey’s own imagination.

An illustration from Geoffrey's book -
Merlin reading his prophecies
to Vortigern
In one chapter Geoffrey would recount well-researched events like Julius Caesar’s foray into Britain. In another he would discuss King Arthur’s plans to attack “Leo, the Emperor of the Romans.” Geoffrey’s “History” is one of the most colorful accounts of the early Middle Ages; it is also one of the most unhistorical accounts to ever be written.

William of Newburgh, a fellow chronicler writing less than half a century after Geoffrey’s death, had this critique to offer:
It is quite clear that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others, either from an inordinate love of lying, or for the sake of pleasing the Britons.
Not all the chroniclers were as discerning as William of Newburgh, however. Some of them, like William, panned Geoffrey's work vociferously, but others saw it as a valuable source, borrowing from it and embedding his legends in the fabric of popular English history.

Today’s historians put little stock in anything The History of the Kings of Britain has to say. Historian and translator Lewis Thorpe notes that:
the History of the Kings of Britain rests primarily upon the life-history of three great men: Brutus, grandson of Aeneas; Belinus, who sacked Rome; and Arthur, King of Britain. This particular Brutus never existed; Rome was never sacked by a Briton called Belinus; and Geoffrey's Arthur is far nearer to the fictional hero of the later Arthurian romances...than to the historical Arthur....
A Gustave Dore illustration
 from Idylls of the King -
Merlin advising King Arthur
And yet, despite its historical inaccuracies, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s book went on to influence hundreds of writers and provide enjoyment for readers across the ages. The courtly love poets of the next century drew from his work when they wrote on “the matter of Britain.” William Shakespeare took the stories of Lear and Cymbeline, two British kings described by Geoffrey, and penned some of the world’s greatest plays. Tennyson crafted his epic Idylls of the King in part from the flesh that Geoffrey had added to the few facts earlier historians had recorded about Arthur.

Geoffrey of Monmouth is mostly remembered for being a very bad historian, but perhaps what he should be remembered for is being a very good storyteller. If only poor Geoffrey of Monmouth had lived in a later century. If only poor Geoffrey of Monmouth had known enough to market his book as historical fiction instead of history.


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books, 1966.


  1. "...but no one mistakes them for history itself."

    I'm afraid I have to dispute that point. You wouldn't believe the nonsense people believe about historical figures, simply because they read it in some novel. Never underestimate the power of the printed word, no matter how ridiculous such words may be.

  2. Although nothing like as grand as Glastonbury, Tintagel has a modest Arthurian tourist business, but like Glastonbury, it's built on shaky, if not downright deceitful ground. Apparently, the brother of Geoffrey's patron, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was Reginald, Earl of Cornwall and he had a castle at Tintagel. The suggestion is that Geoffrey was currying favour with his patron's family by 'improving' their connections, as it were. There is, of course, absolutely no evidence of a genuine Arthurian connection at Tintagel.

    It reminds me of poor old William of Malmesbury. His De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesiae originally contained no reference to Arthur but that didn't quite fit the needs of the monks at Glastonbury Abbey and several re-writes later....

  3. I wonder if they thought their readers would be able to discern what was true and what wasn't?


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