Last week was family vacation time for me. It was Thanksgiving Week for those of us in the U.S. and when I wasn’t eating tons of food I was catching up on my reading. One of the books that I devoured was The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and what a fun read it was.
To any readers in Britain, my hat is off to you. The legendary history of Britain is far cooler, and bloodier, than I ever realized. It’s an epic full of treachery and mysticism where nearly every page is filled with battles involving thousands of warriors soaking the fields in blood.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a religious figure who lived in the 1100’s and was most likely Welsh. His two most famous works are The History of the Kings of Britain and The Prophecies of Merlin, which at some point he combined into the former work to act as a bridge between the reign of King Vortigern and the brothers Aurelius Ambrosius and Uther Pendragon, setting the stage for King Arthur’s rise. Geoffrey does not claim authorship of The History, rather he claims to have translated it from, “(a) certain very ancient book written in the British language,” which he received from Archdeacon Walter of Oxford.
One of the first things to be clear on is that the British Geoffrey is talking about are either the Welsh or those who settled in what became Brittany. Everyone else is a foreigner. Normans? They don’t enter into the story. Celts? They’re newcomers that the British gave Ireland because it had been uninhabited since the giants vanished. Picts? They’re barbarians from the continent. Saxons?
Geoffrey of Monmouth had a lot to say about the Saxons. None of it particularly nice. They’re the well-spoken version of Orcs in his history of Britain.
Did I mention that Geoffrey was probably Welsh?
According to legend, British history began with the fall of Troy. The surviving Trojans settled in Greece, where a boy named Brutus was born. Brutus is banished after he accidentally kills his father, so he and his followers set out on an epic journey to find a new homeland. Along the way they end up fighting many battles, finding more Trojan survivors, and eventually coming to a mysterious island whose population has vanished. In the ruins of a city they find a temple to Diana, who gives Brutus a prophecy of where he may found his kingdom. Following Diana’s guidance, Brutus and his followers sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules into the Atlantic, sailing north along the Gallic coast where they find even more Trojan survivors and hear of a wondrous and fertile island called Albion, which matches the description of Diana’s vision. Brutus leads his people to Albion where they defeat the giants living there and establish the city of Troia Nova, which would later become London. Brutus becomes the first king in this new land and his people take on his name and becoming the Britons.
The Brutus Stone located in Totnes, England, is said to be where Brutus first set foot on Albion’s soil. Given its distance from the coast Brutus must have had long legs.
From this fantastic beginning Geoffrey spins tales of kings of great power and nobility as well as those who are petty and duplicitous. Giants and dragons lurk in the early tales with visions and prophecy enough to please any fan of the Greek legends. King Leir’s story is here, writ large and bathed in blood. The brothers Belinus and Brennius battled each other for the throne but later united to oppose the might of Rome. The brothers sacked the Eternal City, Belinus returning to the kingship of the Britons while Brennius stayed and ruled Rome with an iron fist. Doomed Vortigern, who discovered the boy Merlin. Vortigern played for power, rising to the kingship through treachery and murder, only to watch his kingdom crumble. In the end his name was cursed by both Briton and Saxon and he was burned to death in his fortress tower. Following him came Aurelius, Uther, and finally the glorious reign of Arthur. King Arthur, who ruled an empire of 30 kingdoms, who destroyed the forces of Lucius Hiberius, Emperor of Rome, and who would have worn the imperial crown had he not been forced to turn back by the betrayal of Mordred and Guinevere.
Geoffrey’s Britain never recaptures the golden era of Arthur. Civil wars, betrayals, invasions, and crimes that turn god against the Britons cause the fall of the once-great kingdom. Finally a plague ravages the land so severely that almost every inhabitant is killed or flees. When the plague subsides it is the Saxons who return first, growing ever more numerous and powerful. A few British kings still rise up to stem the Saxon tide, but the time of true British rulership is at an end.
Fans of Thomas Malory’s romantic Arthurian tales will be surprised at how different these stories are. There is no Camelot, no round table, no Sir Lancelot. Kay is not Arthur’s ill-tempered step-brother, but his trusted seneschal and a leader of great renown. Bedivere is Arthur’s cup-bearer and most famous warrior. Arthur’s nephew Gawain is most recognizable, being as strong, courageous, and hot-tempered as his later portrayals show. King Arthur himself is quite different. There is no Sword in the Stone or Lady of the Lake in his story. He is a less romantic figure, but in many ways a mightier one whose empire is far more vast than it is under Malory’s pen. The biggest difference is Merlin, who plays no role in Arthur’s life but is a major figure in that of his three predecessors.
The History of the Kings of Britain is a delightful read and full of inspiration for any gamer, particularly those of the Old School Renaissance. In upcoming posts I’m going to look at a few aspects that I found particularly inspiring for use at the game table. This is a brutal history of poisoned cups, burned cities, and armies tens of thousands strong.