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Brutus Founder of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2002)
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Little is known of the life of Geoffrey of Monmouth. He may have been born in Wales, and he probably worked a a teacher in Oxford from at least 1129 until 1151. That year, he became the Bishop Elect of St. Asaph in North Wales, and he died in 1155. He is the author of The History of the Kings of Britain and The Life of Merlin.

Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain covers 1900 years from the arrival of Brutus, the grandson of Aeneas, following the Trojan Wars. Geoffrey put much effort into synchronizing his story with biblical traditions, so there are many doubts about the truth of his work. He claimed to have based his work on an ancient Welsh book, but was known even in his own time for exageration.

Definitions

 

Background

After the Romans withdrew from England in the 5th century, several barbarian groups moved over from Europe. The Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes invaded and fought against the existing population of Celts, Scots and Picts. Meanwhile, the withdrawal of the Romans ended the influence of Christianity in Britain, and for about two centuries, monks from Ireland provided the main support for Christianity. Since they did not always agree with Christian ideas from Rome, their efforts reduced the influence of the Roman Church in Britain.

In 787, the Danes began to raid the English coast from the sea, and quickly overran Ireland. From 856-875, the Vikings mounted a full scale invasion, while the earls of Wessex (an Anglo-Saxon kingdom) led the resistance. Alfred the Great of Wessex bought time by paying off the Vikings, then fought them to a standstill. After negotiations, the Danes and Wessex divided the southern half of the island, with the Danish portion under the control of Guthrun, who converted to Christianity. Alfred collected money called Danegeld from the Anglo-Saxon peasants, used it to buy peace with the Vikings, and laid the basis for royal taxation.

Map of Britain in 1066
Britain in 1066

Alfred's successors ruled until 1066. In the same year, King Harold faced a Viking uprising in the north and an invasion led by William of Normandy in the south. Harold was able to defeat the Vikings, but lost to the Normans and died at the Battle of Hastings.

The next half-century was a period of consolidation as the Normans united England, defeated the remaining Anglo-Saxon resistance, and superimposed their own feudal system of barons on the Anglo-Saxon system of earls. To prevent anyone from becoming strong enough to challenge the king, each baron's fief was divided into small parcels scattered throughout the country.

King William I (known as "the Conqueror") ruled until 1087, and just before he died, completed the "Domesday Book" which contained a survey of land and property ownership used to provide a basis for taxation. After William died, England was ruled by two of his sons, William II (1087-1100) and Henry I (1100-1135). Henry I reformed the government by employing especially trained officials in place of the feudal nobles. His successor, Henry II (1154-1189), contested the growing authority of the Church over English courts. The Roman Church in England was led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.

During Henry's I's rule, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain in Latin (completed before 1147), and created the tale of King Arthur. One of Geoffrey's contemporaries, Walter Map (c1140-c1200), added the story of the Holy Grail to the Arthurian legend. Coincidentally, at this time there were other advances in learning, especially in astronomy and navigation, and Oxford University was founded in 1167.

Questions

  1. What was the population of Britain like when Brutus and his group arrived?
  2. What was Brutus' ancestry, according to Geoffrey?
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