He called himself Galfridus Monemutensis which suggests he was born and brought up in Monmouthsire, (if not in Monmouth itself) possibly near Caerleon which he often mentions. He was a teacher and secular canon in Oxford. Round about 1135 to 1148, he wrote, in Latin, the History of the Kings of Britain or Historia Regum Britannicum. Tradition has it that he composed it sitting in this window at the Priory in Monmouth but this is unproven.
With its chapter on Arthur of Britain, it popularised the story of this hero, treating him as a factual figure who fought against the invading Saxons - and many other threatening enemies. The work had the impact of a best-seller at the time and took the Norman world by storm. His account, in general, has been criticised for inaccuracy and confusion, even invention.
Yet I feel there is at least one very good reason for crediting Arthur with some degree of historical authenticity: in the Middle Ages originality was not valued and an author was revered for having a respected source for his material. Geoffrey states categorically that Walter the Archdeacon gave him "a certain very ancient book written in the Brittanic tongue" to translate into Latin. It is more likely, because of the habits of mind at the time, that he followed this source rather than making up stories, although some of the aspects of the narrative have a legendary feel. No-one has yet successfully identified the source book. Embellishment - yes; confusion and error - yes; creation from scratch - no!
Precursors - and afterwards
Much earlier Arthur had been connected with prehistoric stones which he could throw for incredible distances but he may have been confused with a Celtic god: in Welsh Arth Fawr means Great Bear. If you slur your words as you say it, you arrive at Arthur and may have noticed the link with the constellation. This term might have been a title rather than a name. Arthur as such emerges around 500 in historical sources as "dux bellorum" or "leader of warfare." Other writers before Geoffrey had dealt with the character of Arthur under different titles: Gildas, a priest from Wales around 550 who does not name Arthur as such; another probable Welshman who mentions the Battle of Badon and Arthur, called Nennius, around 830; and also the Welsh Annals.
Yet it was Geoffrey who stirred up what became world-wide interest in him, his knights, the Round Table, the Holy Grail, Guinevere and Merlin although he did not mention some of these. William of Malmesbury (12th century historian) called Arthur "a man worthy to be celebrated, not by idle fictions, but by authentic history." His story was picked up by: Chrétien de Troyes, a French writer, around 1160-90; the Mabinogian in the 14th century translated in 1846; Sir Thomas Malory, an Englishman, in Le Morte d'Arthur about 1469-70; Dryden and Purcell in an opera based on him in 1691 and Tennyson in his Idylls of the King (partly planned and written in Caerleon) published between 1859 and 1885. Mark Twain and William Morris interested themselves in the narrative and there have been a musical, Camelot, books and films based on the stories. Many of these have been sell-outs as each writer adapted the core to their own epoch.
King Edward III revived the traditions to support his own image and Henry Tudor claimed descent from Arthur to help to prove his right to the throne. His name is kept alive in the present royal family and the names of characters connected with him are well known. The expression "Holy Grail" is part of modern language.
|A knight at the Tewkesbury re-enactment 2016: if you know his name let me know!|