Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Manufacturing a Mythology: Brutus, the Legendary Founder of Britain

by Rosanne E. Lortz

If you’re an ancient Greek, you have wrathful Achilles, the “swift-footed son of Peleus” who defeats Priam’s mighty son Hector and paves the way for the eventual destruction of Troy. Or if guile is more your style, you have Odysseus, the resourceful hero who wanders the world for ten years on his homeward voyage, braving Cyclops, Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, before slaying the scores of suitors ensconced in his own halls.

If you’re an imperial Roman, you have Aeneas, striding proudly out of the flames of Troy, escaping the wiles of Dido of Carthage and carving out a new home in Italy.

Aeneas' Flight from Troy, by Federico Barocci (1598)
But if you’re British and living in the ninth century A.D., you have…nothing. And frankly, it’s kind of embarrassing. Or, at least, it was to the historian Nennius.

How could a country have a proper pedigree if it could not trace its ancestors back to the siege of Troy?

The answer? It couldn’t. And so Nennius began his Historia Brittonum with this story of the legendary “founder” of Britain, a story that seems, almost certainly, concocted from his own fertile imagination since no other versions of the tale precede it.
Aeneas, after the Trojan war, arrived with his son [Ascanius] in Italy; and having vanquished Turnus, married Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus….  
But Ascanius married a wife, who conceived and became pregnant. And Aeneas, having been informed that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, ordered his son to send his magician to examine his wife, whether the child conceived were male or female. The magician came and examined the wife and pronounced it to be a son, who should become the most valiant among the Italians, and the most beloved of all men.  
In consequence of this prediction, the magician was put to death by Ascanius [who presumably thought that he was the most valiant and most beloved?]; but it happened that the mother of the child dying at its birth, he was named Brutus; and after a certain interval agreeably to what the magician had foretold, whilst he was playing with some others he shot his father with an arrow, not intentionally but by accident.  
He was, for this cause, expelled from Italy, and came to the islands of the Tyrrhene sea, when he was exiled on account of the death of Turnus, slain by Aeneas. He then went among the Gauls, and built the city of Turones, called Turnis. At length he came to this island, named from him Britannia, dwelt there, and filled it with his own descendants, and it has been inhabited from that time to the present period.
This story, spun by Nennius, was taken by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his twelfth century Historia Regum Britanniae and embellished even further. He expanded the simple tale into a chapter that numbers twenty-one pages in my edition of the work.

The "Brutus Stone" in Totnes in Devon,
where Geoffrey of Monmouth
says Brutus landed.
Brutus, now the great-grandson (not the grandson) of Aeneas, shows his cunning and prowess as he assembles an army of exiled Trojans, wins victories in Gaul, and crosses the channel into Britain where he must defeat a fierce band of giants. He even builds a capital city on the banks of the Thames, calling it Troia Nova—“New Troy.”

After Geoffrey of Monmouth, the legend of Brutus became widely known and promulgated. The anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight commences his story thus:
When the last assault had been delivered, and the siege of Troy was over, and the city was destroyed by fire and lay in ashes, Prince Aeneas sailed away with his noble kindred, and they conquered new realms…. And far over the French flood [i.e. the English Channel] Felix Brutus, with joy in his heart, founded a broad realm on the hills of Britain….
And in a charming inclusio, once the story of Sir Gawain has been fully told, the author brings us back to Brutus to conclude his tale:
This adventure happened in the days of King Arthur, and the books about Britain, that Brutus founded, record it. And many other adventures like it have befallen since the siege and assault ceased at Troy and the bold knight Brutus first made his way to this land. 
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is just one example among many of how the story of the legendary Brutus became commonplace over the next several centuries. Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which was published in the sixteenth century during the life of Shakespeare, gives more than a nod to the story and treats it as proper history:
After…came Brutus the son of Sylvius with a great train of the posterity of the dispersed Trojans in 324 ships…. [He] brought them also wholly under his rule and governance, and dispossessing the peers & inferior owners of their lands and possessions, he divided the country among such princes and captains as he in his arrival here had led out of Greece with him.
A pic of Brutus of Troy
from 1553
Although Shakespeare, to my knowledge, did not mention Brutus (or, at least, this Brutus), he did use Holinshed’s Chronicles as a source for some of the works in his corpus. His plays King Lear and Cymbeline, both about semi-mythical kings of Britain, show that he was fascinated by the early, legendary days of England. His play Troilus and Cressida (which is set during the fall of Troy) shows that he was also fascinated by the “matter of Rome”—as they called classical mythology.

Geoffrey of Monmouth took Nennius’ few short paragraphs and penned an adventure-filled saga of twenty-one pages. What literary brilliance could Shakespeare have achieved if he had taken Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history and plotted a play about Brutus, the legendary founder of Britain? That is a play I would have enjoyed reading....

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.

Holinsheds Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1587 Edition. Found at The Holinshed Project. http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/toc.php?edition=1587

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by M.R. Ridley. Found in Medieval Romances, edited by Roger Sherman Loomis and Laura Hibbard Loomis. USA: Random House, 1957.


  1. There is another version of the story in Wace's 12th Century poem, "Le Roman de Brut," parts of which will feature in my next novel (in which Wace is a character).

    1. I'll be interested to see your book when it comes out! :-)

  2. Rosanne, terrific piece! I too would be keen to read Shakespeare's efforts about "Brutus" -- would he had written it. Manufacturing some illustrious ancestors has always worked in Britain...even King Ælfred's family tree prominently displays the God Woden as his forbear..!

    1. Actually, Shakespeare did write a play about Brutus of Troy, or at least a play which starts with the end of Brutus's life and provides him with a splendid death speech. The play is 'The Lamentable Tragedy of Locrine', which was published in 1595 under the initials ‘W.S.’ and was included in the first (1685) ‘complete works’
      of William Shakespeare. It was only later that Alexander Pope and Dr Johnson both rejected it from their collections of Shakespeare plays on the grounds of
      its inferior writing, and some scholars now attribute it to Edmund Spenser. But it was signed, nonetheless, ‘W.S.’. There is more about this in Anthony Adolph's book 'Brutus of Troy, and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British', published by Pen and Sword (2015).


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