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18 June 2014
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Myths and Legends
Detail: The crowning of King Arthur, featured in the Geoffrey Tapestry at Monmouth Priory
© Monmouth Priory
Geoffrey of Monmouth - Legend Maker

The 'Historia regum Britanniae' or 'History of the kings of Britain', as it has become generally known, which appeared about 1138, is one of the most influential books ever to have come out of Britain. The book combined many myths and legends from Welsh and British History, presenting a story which traces the origin of Britain from Brut, the great grandson of Acheaus in 1100 BC, to the final triumph of the Saxons and the demise of Cadwallader in 689 AD.

Contained in this chronology are the tales of Merlin and King Arthur, which, although had been mentioned by previous historians, had not been contextualised and elaborated on to the extent that Geoffrey presented them. Whether by design or default, Geoffrey’s major achievement was to popularise the Legend of King Arthur.

186 manuscripts of the Historia have survived, 48 are complete, and two date back the 12th Century. That so many have survived now indicates just how many copies were in circulation at its time of writing.

However, we know very little about its author, Geoffrey of Monmouth – just a few details garnered from official records, enough to confirm his real existence. He was a witness to some six documents in Oxford between 1129 and 1151, where he is termed magister in two of them, suggesting that he had been teaching in a school or hall at the incipient university.

His name occurs together with that of Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, provost of St George’s College, suggesting that he may have been a secular canon there. Further records show that he was ordained as a priest in 1152, and bishop of St Asaph a few days later, he was also one of the bishops who witnessed the Treaty of Westminster in 1153; and finally, a Welsh chronicle records his death in 1155.

Words: Brynley F Roberts

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