Kings and Queens of Early Britainby Geoffrey Ashe ASHE
An updated and revised edition of Geoffrey Ashe's enjoyable investigation of Britain's monarchs, from its earliest legendary rulers such as Bran the Blessed and King Lear, to the kings and queens of Roman Britain, including Boudicca, and Alfred in the 9th century. Drawing on archaeological and documentary evidence, Ashe identifies real and imagined rulers from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and Gildas , including King Arthur and other powerful figures in the histories of England, Scotland and Wales. The study vividly recreates the political struggles and religious conflicts of Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain.
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Kings and Queens of Early Britain
By Geoffrey Ashe
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1990 Geoffrey Ashe
All rights reserved.
Kings and Queens of Legend
IN 55 B.C., JULIUS CAESAR CROSSED THE CHANNEL. In the thousand years or so before that, seventy-six monarchs are reputed to have reigned over Britain. We know the names of most of them. They are all imaginary.
Britain owes her pre-Roman dynasties to a book which was widely supposed, through the Middle Ages and after, to be true. Even in modern times it still has the power to influence historical writing, however often historians may say otherwise. As for its impact on literature, that can never be undone. Malory's story of King Arthur has its ancestry in this book. Spenser wove a summary of it into The Faerie Queene. Shakespeare, directly or indirectly, took the plot of King Lear from it. Milton planned to base an epic on it, before he embarked on Paradise Lost instead.
It is called The History of the Kings of Britain. Out of scanty materials it created a complete legendary scheme for the island's past. Its author was Geoffrey of Monmouth. He was a cleric, probably a Welshman, perhaps a Breton born in Wales. His date of birth is unknown, but from 1129 to 1151 he was living in Oxford and seemingly teaching there. He died in 1155. When still fairly young he had begun collecting, and embellishing, ancient British traditions. Over the years he wrote much about Merlin, the prophet and enchanter. Some of the Merlin matter went into his masterpiece on the British kings, and helped to give it its fascination.
He finished it in 1136 or thereabouts, writing in Latin, then the international medium of scholarship. It is a work of genius, and a puzzle. In the preface he asserts that he translated it from 'a certain very ancient book written in the British language' which was given him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. Walter existed, and his signature appears with Geoffrey's on one or two documents. The question is whether the book existed. The 'British language' could mean Welsh or Breton, but there is no trace of any work in either which could have been Geoffrey's original. He shows himself to be a person of wide reading. He certainly draws on passages in earlier authors, such as a Welsh monk at Bangor named Nennius, who, early in the ninth century, compiled a History of the Britons (in Latin, not Welsh) containing a little history and a great deal of legend. There are indications also that Geoffrey used a Breton history which has been lost sight of. However, this can hardly have covered all the ground he covers himself. The main credit for the immense imposture — if 'credit' is the right word — is never likely to be taken away from him.
Nor does he confine himself to royal phantoms in an undocumented epoch B.C. After the seventy-sixth of them he has to face the reality of Caesar. But he plunges boldly on into centuries where he can be checked. The intertwining of his imagination with history has bizarre results. These too belong to the story of British kingship, because they help to show how even rulers who did exist could take on legendary aspects, and pass into poetry and romance. Geoffrey of Monmouth is an entertaining and memorable companion, so long as one never believes anything he says. His fictitious Ancient Britain claims our attention first, and even after it fades away we shall not be parting company with him — not altogether. At the outset he must be allowed to hold the stage almost alone.
Britain (Geoffrey informs us) is named after its first king, Brutus, who was a great-grandson of the Trojan prince Aeneas. Surprisingly perhaps, while almost everything he says about Brutus is his own invention, the bare original notion is not. It is found with a few family details in the earlier book by Nennius. The inspiration behind it is patriotic, a wish to give the Britons a pedigree linking them with aristocratic antiquity. In Homer's Iliad, the god Poseidon foretells that Aeneas will save the royal house of Troy from extinction after the city falls. The Romans took up that prophecy. They claimed that Aeneas had sailed to Italy with a party of Trojan refugees, that their own early kings were his descendants, and that the basic Roman stock was Trojan. Virgil turned the belief into poetry in his national epic the Aeneid, interweaving it with ideas about divine providence in the genesis of Rome and the glories of the Empire.
The Welsh fable of Brutus the Trojan, built up by Geoffrey into a full-blown pseudo-history, becomes in his hands a postscript to Virgil. He makes out that the ancient Britons shared in an august destiny and had a cousinly relationship to the Romans themselves. By 'Britons' he means the ancestors of the Welsh, not those of the English who came later; one purpose of his book is to exalt the forbears of his own fellow-countrymen. In Virgil's epic, Aeneas has a son named Ascanius who settles in Italy with the rest of the Trojan party. Geoffrey takes the line a step further, to Ascanius's son Silvius.
When Silvius's wife was pregnant, he says, soothsayers foretold that the child would be a boy who would cause the deaths of both his parents, wander in exile, but finally rise to high honour. This was Brutus. His mother died giving birth to him, and when he grew up, he accidentally shot Silvius with an arrow while hunting. Driven to leave home, he went to Greece and discovered that the Greek king, Pandrasus, had several thousand slaves descended from Trojans carried off when the Greeks captured Troy. He organized a revolt and took Pandrasus prisoner. The king agreed to let Brutus marry his daughter Ignoge and lead the Trojans away to a land of their own.
After sailing for two days the expedition put ashore on an island. It was deserted, but had once been inhabited, and had a temple of Diana. Brutus prayed to her to tell him where the migrants should go. He lay down to sleep in front of her altar, and she appeared to him in a dream and spoke:
'Brutus, beyond the setting of the sun, past the realms of Gaul, there lies an island in the sea, once occupied by giants. Now it is empty and ready for your folk. Down the years this will prove an abode suited to you and to your people; and for your descendants it will be a second Troy. A race of kings will be born there from your stock and the round circle of the whole earth will be subject to them.'
Greatly heartened, they sailed on. In the neighborhood of Gibraltar they picked up more Trojans, whose leader was Corineus. Having spent some time in Gaul, where they founded the city of Tours, they disembarked in the promised land at Totnes. (For some reason Geoffrey is much interested in Totnes. In the course of the History a whole series of people land there.)
Britain was then called Albion. Brutus re-named it after himself, and called his companions Britons. Corineus was allotted the south-west promontory for his domain, and called it Cornwall. Diana had not been quite accurate about the giants. They were still some way from total extinction, and the number surviving in Cornwall was appreciable. The Britons suffered heavily when giants attacked their base at Totnes. At last they killed all the marauding band but one, Gogmagog, whom Corineus wrestled and threw over a cliff.
Brutus then explored the whole country looking for the best site for a capital. He founded a city beside the Thames and named it Troia Nova, New Troy. In later ages this was corrupted into 'Trinovantum.' Thus Geoffrey accounts for the Trinovantes, whom Caesar mentions as living in the Essex area. Brutus's capital was completed when Eli was judge in Israel, that is, between 1100 and 1050 B.C. He died after reigning over his fast-multiplying immigrants for twenty-three years, and was buried within the walls of his new city. It was to be re-named London, but that development was far off.
Having disposed of Brutus, Geoffrey goes on to the rest of his pre-Roman sovereigns. Some of them he dwells on, some he passes over at breakneck speed. His scheme is plainly artificial, since direct unbroken succession from father to son — or at any rate, succession within a single family line — goes on too long to be plausible. Yet although he is making it up to suit himself, the average length of reign works out at less than fourteen years, so he has no need for such a large cast of characters. Furthermore he adds princes and princesses, some of whom have no part to play at all.
The reason for this overcrowding is known, and it sheds light on his methods and the way Britain's legendary history grew. Many of his royal names are taken from a collection of old Welsh genealogies. The persons listed in these belong not to the distant past but to the sixth century A.D. and later. In copying the names Geoffrey disguises them, often turning them from Welsh into a sort of Latin, but his guiding principle is simply to work plenty of them in: rather — it has been remarked — as if he were using a page torn from a directory.
He also has characters who are pure fiction. He invents a few as explanations, on the same lines as Corineus the founder of Cornwall. A prince called Kamber, for instance, is made to account for 'Kambria' or Cambria, i.e. Wales. Others come from myths and folk-tales. One name, Brennius, is slightly altered from that of a real person, but he was not a king of Britain.
Given a clear understanding that these early monarchs are creatures of fancy, it is still worth seeing what Geoffrey makes of some of them. The next after Brutus is his son Locrinus. Locrinus's successor is his widow Gwendolen. When her son Maddan is grown up, she hands over to him, retaining Cornwall for herself for the rest of her life. Then for several generations the crown of Britain passes from father to son. After Maddan the next six kings are Mempricius, Ebraucus (who has twenty sons and thirty daughters, all listed), a second Brutus nicknamed Greenshield, Leil, Rud Hud Hudibras, and Bladud, the last of these being contemporary with the prophet Elijah. Bladud, we are told, founded Bath, and it was he and not the Romans who built the baths there, with Minerva as tutelary goddess. He also experimented with magic, and made himself a pair of wings with which he flew over Trinovantum. However, he fell on the temple of Apollo and was 'dashed into countless fragments'. Bladud is one of the kings in Geoffrey's History who have passed into legend outside it. The story at Bath is that he discovered its virtues as a spa through being cured of leprosy by the hot spring-water and impregnated mud.
Bladud's son Leir is the Lear of Shakespeare. If one were to ask 'What relation was King Lear to Aeneas?' it would sound like a nonsense question, but the History answers it: he was Aeneas's great-great-great-great-greatgreat-great-great-great-great-grandson. Geoffrey says he founded Leicester. His reign lasted sixty years, longer than any other for which a duration is given. Leir had no son, but he had three daughters, Gonorilla, Regan and Cordeilla. He was very fond of all three, but especially of Cordeilla, the youngest. When he felt old age coming on he resolved to divide his kingdom among them, and marry them to husbands who could help with the government. To decide which should have the largest share, he tried to find out which loved him most. Gonorilla and Regan made extravagant protestations. Cordeilla, who wanted to test her father just as he was testing her, replied less flatteringly. She loved him with all the love due from a daughter to a father, but no more. To make matters worse she told him that his value in others' eyes depended, in practice, on his possessions. Leir was furious and refused to give her a share in the kingdom. Gonorilla married the Duke of Albany (an old name for Scotland which Geoffrey uses). Regan married the Duke of Cornwall. Cordeilla married Aganippus, king of the Franks, who was willing to take her without a dowry. She went away to live in Gaul.
For a time Leir kept part of Britain as a domain of his own and divided the residue between Gonorilla and Regan, but when he was too old to resist, their husbands forced him to relinquish his share to them. The Duke of Albany, however, agreed to maintain him in his own ducal household, with a hundred and forty knights as his personal attendants. This arrangement lasted for two years. Then Gonorilla said it must end. The attendants wanted too much, and quarrelled with her own servants. Thirty would be enough, the rest could consider themselves dismissed. Leir went off in a rage to Regan, and her husband accepted him with his thirty attendants. In less than a year Regan complained to her father as her sister had done, and wanted his retinue reduced to five. He went back to Gonorilla hoping that she would allow him thirty, but now she told him that as an old man with no possessions he had no right to a train of followers, and she would not have him in the house unless he sent all of them away but one.
Leir had to accept her terms, but the misery of living with her in such an atmosphere was too much for him. He set off for Gaul hoping to make his peace with Cordeilla. On the ship he found that he was not given the place of honour, and realized the truth of his youngest daughter's saying — that he was valued and loved according to his possessions. She received him kindly, allotted forty knights to his service, and conducted him to her husband. Aganippus raised an army to support Leir. Father and daughter returned to Britain and defeated both sons-in-law. Leir, restored, reigned for three years and died. Aganippus died also, and Cordeilla stayed in Britain ruling in her own right. She buried her father in a vault under the River Soar below Leicester. After she had reigned peaceably for five years, her sisters' sons rose against her and captured her. She took her own life in prison.
There was an Elizabethan Leir play before Shakespeare's. Tolstoy thought it was better, but that remains a minority view. The differences in Shakespeare's version hardly need pointing out, but one fact is not so obvious — that an adapted happy-ending King Lear by Nahum Tate, which long excluded the genuine article from performance, is closer to the original. As far as the king is concerned, Geoffrey's story does have a happy ending. The death of the youngest daughter, though caused indirectly by the family split, is a separate tragedy happening long afterwards. No pre-Geoffrey version is known. One would suspect a folk-tale which he heard somewhere. Not necessarily a British folk-tale: he was quite capable of giving it a British setting, wherever it came from.
Cordeilla's nephews, he continues, tried to share the kingdom. But they quarrelled, and Regan's son Cunedagius emerged as sole ruler. He reigned for another thirty-three years. About this time Isaiah was prophesying and Rome was founded (the traditional date for Rome is 753 B.C.). Sixth after Cunedagius was Gorboduc, another king mentioned by Shakespeare — in Twelfth Night — but not dramatized by him. The dramatization, however, had already been effected by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton in the first of all tragedies in English, performed in the Queen's presence in January 1562.
Gorboduc had two sons by his wife Judon. Their names were Ferrex and Porrex. When Gorboduc became senile and could not reign any more, the brothers disputed over the succession. Porrex was the more ambitious and ruthless. He plotted to murder Ferrex, who, however, escaped to Gaul and returned with an army supplied by the Frankish king. This invasion was not as successful as Leir's had been, and Ferrex fell in battle. His mother Judon had always preferred him to Porrex. His death unbalanced her, and when Porrex was asleep she crept in with her maidservants and hacked him to pieces.
The line of Brutus was now extinct. A long period of anarchy followed. Eventually five contending rulers were holding different areas and making war on each other. The most astute and audacious of them, a Cornishman named Dunvallo Molmutius, beat the others and became king of Britain. Maintaining that the monarchy had been restored for a fresh start, he wore a golden crown as a new emblem. He suppressed banditry and published a code of laws. The Molmutine Laws, confirmed and clarified by his son Belinus, endured for centuries. In the Christian era, Geoffrey assures us, they were translated into Latin, and King Alfred re-published them in English. Tudor historians adopted this bit of information. Shakespeare took note, and he refers to Molmutius's laws in Cymbeline.
Belinus did not inherit without trouble. He had a brother, Brennius, and fought two civil wars against him. Again a division of the kingdom was tried and broke down. At last Brennius went abroad and Belinus ruled alone. His major achievement was a programme of road-building. The first of his paved highways ran from Cornwall to Caithness, linking up cities on the way. The second ran from Menevia, later St David's, to Southampton. Two more crossed Britain diagonally. His brother Brennius meanwhile had found allies abroad, and returned harbouring schemes of vengeance against him, but their mother reconciled them.
Excerpted from Kings and Queens of Early Britain by Geoffrey Ashe. Copyright © 1990 Geoffrey Ashe. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Geoffrey Ashe is a distinguished British medievalist and cultural historian.
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