Rivers and Literary Geography in Twelfth-Century Historiography (19th February 2020)

Map of the course of the River Severn from Gloucester to Cardiff, 1595 (London, British Library, Cotton MS Augustus I.ii.17) 

Sources of both abundance and destruction, life and death, rivers have always had a powerful hold over humankind. They run through every human landscape, whether mythical or actual. In the Book of Genesis, the geography of humanity’s first home is defined by a river that flowed through Eden and separates the into four headwaters, creating the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers. According to classical mythology, the boundaries of the underworld are likewise demarcated by rivers: the Acheron, Cocytus, Phelgethon, Lethe, Ariadanos, and of course the Styx. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BCE) tells of a catastrophic river flood sent by angry deities to destroy all life.[1]

Next meeting: Wednesday 21st February / Room 3.66 / 3-5pm

This month we are reading a selection of twelfth-century historical texts by Geoffrey of Monmouth, William of Malmesbury, and Gerald of Wales. We will approach these texts using the critical theory of literary geography, which is outlined in a short essay by Neal Alexander. We will examine the real and imagined geographies in these texts, focusing on rivers and their function as borders. In particular, we will analyse the representation of River Severn and the River Usk and the border towns of Gloucester and Caerleon.

Rivers as Borders

The Wales-England Border, which was officially established by the Acts of Union in 1535 and 1542, is demarcated by two rivers: the River Dee to the north and the River Severn to the south. However, rivers were used as borders in Wales long before the sixteenth century. Della Hooke and Maren Clegg Hyer note that ‘rivers and watercourses were often taken to mark territorial boundaries from an early date. Early Welsh laws regard a major river as one of the “stays” of a boundary, a “stay” denoting a limiting feature’.[2] The River Severn, which runs through the counties of Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Gloucestershire, is a natural, political, and symbolic border between England and Wales.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, rivers function as one of the primary divisions of the landscape. Geoffrey describes the ‘three noble rivers’ of Britain, including the Thames, the Severn, and the Humber. The Thames divides the south of Britain, and flows through the main locus of power, London (or Troia Nova); it also forms a major trade route between Britain and the continent. The Humber divides the south of Britain from the north (including Scotland), and the Severn divides England from Wales. Geoffrey recounts the division of Britain between Brutus’ sons, Locrinus, Albanactus, and Kamber. He notes that Kamber ‘received the region [of Britain] across the river Severn, now known as Wales’ (HRB, 23). Geoffrey also describes how the archbishopric of Caerleon was ‘separated from the two former diocseses [York and Canterbury] by the Severn’ (HRB, 72). For Geoffrey, then, the Severn is a national border and an ecclesiastical boundary.

Geoffrey also comments on the etymological origins of the River Severn. In Book II of the Historia, he recounts the story of Habren, the illegitimate daughter of Locrinus and Estrildis. Erin Murphy notes that ‘[a]s a bastard, Sabrina [Habren] represents the excess and instability of reproduction and figures a threat to dynastic lineage’.[3] Maddan, the son of Locrinus and Guendolena, is the rightful heir of Britain: he symbolises the union between England and Cornwall as his mother, Guendolena, is the daughter of Corineus, the king of Cornwall. After Locrinus’ death, Guendolena takes revenge and orders

Estrildis and her daughter Habren to be thrown into the river now called the Severn [Sabrina], and issued instructions throughout Britain that the river should be named after the girl; she wanted Habren to enjoy immortality since her own husband had been the girl’s father. Hence the river is called Habren in British even today, although in the other tongue this has been corrupted to Severn [Sabrina]. (HRB, 25)

The story of Habren is memorialised through the name of the river Severn. Etymologies are a recurrent motif throughout the Historia, and Monika Otter suggests that ‘the many uses of place names, topography, and space in the Historia form a resonant, coherent, motif pattern that is key to Geoffrey’s poetics’.[4] Geoffrey uses his invented etymologies to emphasise the instability and mutability of language. In the story of Habren, he states that the river is called ‘Habren’ in British, but also notes that it has been ‘corrupted’ to ‘Severn’ in English. Geoffrey resists directly naming the English language – which he refers to as the ‘other tongue [alia lingua]’ – but the substitution of ‘Habren’ with ‘Sabrina’ emphasises the loss of British sovereignty and erases the connection between people and place.

Borders are both real and imagined. Although Geoffrey claimed the Severn marked border between England and Wales, the river ‘passes from Wales into England without at any point marking the division between the nations’.[5] Philip Schwyzer points out that

Geoffrey’s claim that the Severn marked the original – and, by implication, essential and inalienable – border between England and Wales remained current for centuries. Even after the domains of the old Marcher Lords had been extinguished forever by the Union of England and Wales under Henry VIII, chroniclers and chorographers continued to take the old claim seriously.[6]

The River Wye, which originates from the same source as the Severn and runs through the border towns of Hereford, Chepstow, and Monmouth, more accurately represents the border. Geoffrey’s near contemporary, Gerald of Wales, recognised the Wye as the ‘modern boundary between England and Wales’ (Descriptio, p. 226). However, he did note that the Severn was a historical border, and that ‘[f]or many years this river formed the boundary between Cambria and Loergia, or Wales and southern England’ (Descripto, p. 225). By the twelfth century, the Wye represented the real, contemporary border, while the Severn represented an imagined and symbolic border.

In his introduction to Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300-1600 (2013), Keith D. Lilley distinguishes between medieval geographical traditions and geographical imaginations.[7] Traditions represent forms of geographical thought and knowledge, while imaginations refers to the geographies of texts and images. But traditions and imaginations are often intimately connected. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim that the Severn was the national border between England and Wales demonstrates how an imagined geography become a geographical tradition.

Texts

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia regum Britanniae
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain, c. 1138) is a complete history of the British kings from Brutus of Troy to Cadwaladr. We are reading three short extracts from the Historia, including the description of Britain; the divison of Britian and the naming of the Severn; and the description of Caerleon. Geoffrey’s description of Britain demonstrates the influence of other insular writers such as Gildas, Nennius, Bede, and Henry of Huntingdon. The tripartite division of Britain in the Historia was often used to legitimise British sovereignty (especially over Scotland).

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum
William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (‘The Deeds of the English Bishops’, c. 1125) is a survey of the bishops in all the dioceses of England from Augustine’s arrival in Canterbury in 597 down to the 1120s when the work was being written. For the period after Bede’s death in 730 it is the most single important source of English church history. William’s Gesta is an early example of chorography, and we are reading a short chapter on the diocese of Worcester, which includes a description of the city of Gloucester on the River Severn.

Gerald of Wales, Itinerarium Kambriae and Descriptio Kambriae
Gerald of Wales was a Cambro-Norman writer. The Itinerarium Kambriae (‘The Journey Through Wales’, c. 1191) records Gerald’s travels around Wales with Archbishop Baldwin in 1188 to preach the Third Crusade. Meanwhile, the Descriptio Kambriae (‘The Description of Wales, c. 1194) is an ethnography the Welsh people which constructs them as ‘objects of study and interest rather than as subjects of history’.[8] We are reading a couple of chapters from the Descriptio on the rivers of Wales, as well as Gerald’s account of his travels through Caerleon, Newport, and Cardiff.

Brut y Tywysogyon (Peniarth MS 20)
The Brut y Tywysogyon (‘Chronicle of the Princes’) is the Welsh language continuation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae. This version of the Welsh Brut in Peniarth MS 20 begins in 682 with the death of Cadwaladr and ends in 1332. We are reading the entries for 1171-5. The entry for 1171 records the submission of Rhys ap Gruffydd – the Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth (South Wales) – to Henry II at Newnham on Severn, as well as the burning of Caerleon by Iorweth ab Owain and his sons, Owain and Hywel. After the murder of Owain, Iorweth and Hywel repeatedly attacked Caerleon until Henry yielded the city in 1175.

Questions

  • How can we use the critical theory of literary geography to approach these texts?
  • What types of geographies are described in these texts? (i.e. real, imagined, national, regional, local, institutional)
  • How do these descriptions utilise the locus amoenus topos?
  • How do rivers function as borders and boundaries?
  • What do you think of Geoffrey’s story of Habren and the etymology of the River Severn?
  • What is the significance of the border towns of Caerleon and Gloucester?
  • How can we compare the descriptions of Caerleon by Geoffrey of Monmouth and Gerald of Wales?
  • Antonia Gransden has commented that ‘[t]he twelfth century was, until the literary developments of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, pre-eminent for descriptive writing’.[9] Have you read any other texts produced in the twelfth century that demonstrate a similar interest in descriptive detail?
  • To what extent does genre influence the representation of the river? Consider the differences between history, description, chorography (the study of provinces, regions or cities), itinerary (travel writing), and ethnography.

References

[1] Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller, ‘Rivers in History and Historiography: An Introduction’, Rivers in History: Perspectives on Waterways in Europe and North America, ed. by Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008), pp. 1-10 (p. 1).

[2] Della Hooke and Maren Clegg Hyer, ‘Introduction’, in Water and the Environment in the Anglo-Saxon World, ed. by Maren Clegg Hyer and Della Hooke (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), pp. 1-14 (p. 3).

[3] Erin Murphy, ‘Sabrina and the Making of English History in Poly-Olbion and A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle’, Studies in English Literature, 51.1 (2011), 87-110 (p. 91).

[4] Monika Otter, Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing (Chapel Hill, NC and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), p. 69.

[5] Philip Schwyzer, ‘Purity and Danger on the West Bank of the Severn: The Cultural Geography of A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634’, Representations, 60 (1997), 22-48 (p. 24).

[6] Philip Schwyzer, ‘A map of Greater Cambria’, in Literature, Mapping, and the Politics of Space in Early Modern Britain, ed. by Andrew Gordon and Bernhard Klein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 35-44 (p. 35)

[7] Michael A. Faletra, Wales and the Medieval Colonial Imagination: The Matters of Britain in the Twelfth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 156.

[8] Keith D. Lilley, ‘Introduction: mapping medieval geographies’, in Mapping Medieval Geographies: Geographical Encounters in the Latin West and Beyond, 300-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 1-20.

[9] Antonia Gransden, ‘Realistic Observation in Twelfth-Century England’, in Legends, Traditions and History in Medieval England, ed. by Antonia Gransden (London and Rio Grande: The Hambledon Press, 1992), pp. 175-99 (p. 176).

The auctoritas of Geoffrey of Monmouth

In his Anglica Historia (1534), Polydore Vergil published his scathing comments about Geoffrey of Monmouth, which subsequently ignited a debate over the veracity of the Historia regum Britanniae.[1] Quoting the twelfth-century historian, William of Newburgh, he writes that

there hathe appeared a writer in owre time which, to purse these defaultes of Brittains, feininge of them thinges to be laughed at, hathe extolled them above the nobleness of Romains and Macedonians, enhauncinge them with moste impudent lyeing. This man is cauled Geffray, surnamed Arthure, bie cause that oute of the olde lesings of Brittons, being somewhat augmented bie him, he hathe recited manie things of this King Arthure, taking unto him both the coloure of Latin speech and the honest pretext of an Historie.[2]

Vergil believed the Historia to be largely fictitious: he regarded Brutus to be an invention of the author, and he also suggested that Geoffrey’s portrait of Arthur had been highly embellished. British historians and antiquarians, such as John Leland, John Prise, and Humphrey Llwyd, were not receptive to the Anglica Historia, and they rushed to defend Geoffrey.

Yet Polydore Vergil’s objections about the Historia regum Britanniae were not new. In the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales and – most famously – William of Newburgh had their doubts about the reliability of Geoffrey’s work. Vergil, then, was merely continuing a tradition of skepticism about the Historia that had been popular since the twelfth century, and so his comments were not, necessarily, the product of Renaissance humanist doubt. This short post will consider how medieval and early modern commentators on the Historia regum Britanniae used their scholarly arguments to explore ideas of authority and authorship; in particular, it focuses on how William of Newburgh and John Leland used their evaluative historiographical practices to influence the reputation of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

William of Newburgh

Geoffrey’s most profound early critic was William of Newburgh. His skepticism of the Historia regum Britanniane is well documented in his Historia rerum Anglicarum (‘The History of English Affairs’, c. 1198), a history of the Anglo-Norman kings from William I to Richard I, which focuses in particular on the civil unrest in the reign of King Stephen. In this text, William includes a vicious attack on Geoffrey and the Historia, and the prologue to his text begins with a treatise on history and truth. He upholds Gildas and Bede as the most esteemed writers of ‘British’ history, particularly as they were committed to revealing the truth about the Britons, but he laments that

in our own day a writer [scriptor] of the opposite tendency has emerged. To atone for these faults of the Britons he weaves a laughable [ridicula] web of fiction [figmenta] about them, with shameless vainglory extolling them far above the virtue of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey and bears the soubriquet Arthur, because he has taken up the stories about Arthur from the old fictitious [figmentis] accounts of the Britons, has added to them himself, and by embellishing them in the Latin tongue he has cloaked them with the honourable title of history.[3]

In this passage, William’s main objection to the Historia is its basis in fiction [figemnta], rather than fact, and he complains that such an unreliable work has been produced in Latin, the language of authority. The contrast between fact and fiction demonstrates the unreliability of Geoffrey’s work, especially since the deeds of Arthur in the Historia have been over exaggerated. William insists that here is no justification for such ‘wanton and shameless lying’ (I.5), and dismisses Geoffrey as a mediocre historian who has ‘not learned the truth about events’ (I.5).

William’s prologue continues with a brief descriptive of the Saxon invasion by Hengist, and he lists the English kings that ruled after him, including Ethelbert, Aethelfrith, Edwin, and Oswald. According to William, these are historically accurate [historicam veritatem] events as they are accounted for in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. William then uses Bede’s account to disprove Geoffrey’s version of events, and he claims that

it is clear that Geoffrey’s entire narration about Arthur, his successors, and his predecessors after Vortigern, was invented partly by himself and partly by others. The motive was either an uncontrolled passion for lying, or secondly a desire to please the Britons, most of whom are considered to be so barbaric that they are said to be still awaiting the future coming of Arthur being unwitting to entertain the fact of his death. (I.9)

William’s juxtaposition of these accounts is clearly designed to assert the authority of Bede, rather than Geoffrey. Nevertheless, his assertion that created the Historia ‘partly by himself’, suggests that William also regarded Geoffrey as an auctor who was distinguished from scriptors, compilators, and commentators by their ability to invent their own work.[4] Technically, of course, Geoffrey only fulfills the category of scriptor as he only presents himself as a translator of the ‘British book’, which he claims was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. By acknowledging that some of the content of the Historia regum Britanniae was unique – even it was unaccounted for – Geoffrey’s principal critic is also his most important bestower of auctoritas.

After comparing Geoffrey with Bede, William casts his final judgment over the veracity of the Historia. He interrogates Geoffrey’s account of Arthur’s reign, particularly his foreign conquests, and he remarks

how could the historians of old, who took immense pains to omit from their writings nothing worthy of mention, and who are known to have recorded even modest events, have passed over in silence this man beyond compare and his achievements so notably beyond measure? How, I ask, have they suppressed in silence one more notable than Alexander the Great – this Arthur, monarch of the Britons, and his deeds – or Merlin, prophet of the Britons, one equal to Isaiah, and his utterances? […] So since the historians of old have made not even the slightest mention of these persons, clearly all that Geoffrey has published in his writer about Arthur and Merlin has been invented by liars to feed the curiosity of those less wise. (I.14)

Here, William’s process of evaluation is framed through a series of complex rhetorical questions and juxtapositions focusing on Geoffrey and the ‘historians of old’. The rhetorical questions are designed to reinforce the authority of Gildas and Bede (even if they are not directly mentioned by name), and they imply that it would be unreasonable to doubt the reliability of two writers who recorded every detail of events. William entirely discredits Geoffrey’s attempt to fill the lacuna in insular history, and his conclusion that the stories of Arthur and Merlin Historia must be an invention, especially since they cannot be confirmed by any of the ancient historians, appears to be perfectly valid.

John Leland

The critical attitudes to Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae began to change in the sixteenth century. The English antiquarian John Leland objected to Vergil’s claim that the Historia was an unreliable source, and in his De uiris Illustribus (‘Of Famous Men’, first completed 1535-6 and revised 1543-6), Leland offered a defence of Geoffrey, whom he placed alongside various other writers of ‘British’ history, ranging from the first Druids to Robert Widow. The account in De uiris Illustribus can be considered to be the first biography of Geoffrey, who is described as a man who ‘took great pleasure in reading ancient history’ and who ‘also delighted in scholarly intercourse’.[5] Leland situates Geoffrey within the clerical and academic circles of his time, and he is upheld as model of learning and authority. He praises him for his dedication to ‘British’ history as ‘he stands alone in having rescued a great part of Britain’s antiquity [Britannicae antiquitatis] well and truly from destruction through a diligence [diligentia] which is beyond all praise’ (Leland, p. 308-9). Leland presents Geoffrey as a translator, rather than an author, of his own work, and he writes that

he openly declares that he performed the task [officio] only of an interpreter [interpretis]; in other words, he translated a British history, written in the British language, and brought to him by Walter Map, the archdeacon of Oxford, into Latin. (Leland, p. 310-11)

This remark is essentially an apology for the number of inventions that can be found in the Historia, and it is also designed to counteract the comments of Geoffrey’s critics, who credited him with fabricating many of the events in his work. According to Leland, then, Geoffrey had a limited amount of creative agency, and he simply acted as a cultural mediator by transmitting an ancient account of the ‘British’ past to his twelfth century readers.

Leland’s biography of Geoffrey includes a lengthy scholarly attack on Polydore Vergil. Leland complains that the Italian historian

launches a frenzied attack on Geoffrey, in order to undermine Geoffrey’s authority [autoritatem] and to accumulate weight and force as well as credibility [ueritatem] for his own empty inanities. Then, for much of the earlier part of his history, this most impudent fellow is forced to follow the writer whom he has just torn to pieces with so many harsh words. But one should surely forgive this impertinence when there was practically no other authority [autorem] he could have followed. (p. 310-11)

Here, Leland asserts that Vergil is a hypocrite for discrediting Geoffrey, and then using his account to form the basis of the record of insular history in the Anglica Historia. Leland’s comments also imply that ‘English’ history, from the Saxon period through the Normans to the Plantagenet kings, and the current Tudor monarchy, depends upon early ‘British’ history for its authenticity. Indeed, during the fifteenth century, the idea of cultural inheritance between England and Wales was being more explicitly acknowledged, especially as Henry VII had used his descent from Cadwallader, the last king of the Britons, to legitimate his claim to the throne. According to Leland, then, the Historia still had political currency, and he consistently emphasises the authority of Geoffrey, the ‘good author’, in order to expose Vergil, the ‘foreigner’, as the unreliable fraud.

In De uiris Illustribus, Leland also includes an assessment of Vergil’s sources that he used in the Anglica Historia. Vergil’s account of early insular history relied heavily on Tacitus’ Agricola (c. 98) and Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (c. 58-49 BCE), both of which had grown in popularity during the Early Modern period. For Vergil, these Latin Caesar and Tacitus were more authoritative than Gildas and Bede, who lived several centuries later than the period they were writing about. Leland, however, remarks that

none of them [the Romans], as far as I know, wrote anything worth mentioning before Caesar. Besides, not everything that Caesar wrote – however much the Dunce [Polydore Vergil] makes of his statements – seems to me to have proceeded from an oracle; the same applies to many other things about the Britons which were later handed down to posterity by Latin authors. (Leland, pp. 310-13)

This assessment of Caesar is also a judgment of Polydore Vergil. Leland implies that it was unreasonable for Vergil to use Roman – and therefore biased – history in order to counteract Geoffrey’s version of ‘British’ history. Moreover, Leland also disregards the authority of Gildas and Bede, especially since the authorship of De Excidio Britanniae was subject to question after its publication in 1525, and the Historia Ecclesiastica included very little information on early ‘British’ history prior to the Saxon conquest. Leland’s detailed evaluation of his these sources interrogates the comparative methodology that Geoffrey’s critics used to disprove his account of insular history, and through his scholarly inquiry, Leland demonstrates that the Historia is the only real authority worth following.

The short biography of Geoffrey of Monmouth in De uirius Illustribus canonised the ‘British’ historian as an auctor – a term that, as A. J. Minnis points out, ‘denoted someone who was at once a writer and an authority, someone not merely to be read but also to be respected and believed’.[6] John Leland’s appraisal of Geoffrey challenged and disproved the objections of the critics of the Historia regum Britanniae, and his work later influenced the Welsh historians John Prise and Humphrey Llwyd, who both wrote defenses of Geoffrey in the latter half of the sixteenth century. These classically educated scholars and intellectuals held the Historia regum Britanniae in great esteem, rescuing its reputation from the likes of William of Newburgh and Polydore Vergil. Through their arguments, Leland, Prise, and Llwyd proved that Geoffrey’s authority and the veracity of his Historia was beyond all doubt.


This is a revised version of a paper given at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds (July 2015)

[1] This debate has been previously explored by James P. Carley, who viewed the antagonism between the two historians as prefiguring twentieth-century scholarship on the ‘historical Arthur’ that became increasingly popular among historians and archaeologists following the work of E. K Chambers and Leslie Alcock; see James P. Carley, ‘Polydore Vergil and John Leland on King Arthur: The Battle of the Books’, in King Arthur: A Casebook, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 185-204.

[2] Polydore Vergil’s English History, from an early translation presented among the MSS. of The Royal Library in the British Museum. Volume 1. Containing the First Eight Books, comprising the period prior to the Norman Conquest, ed. Sir Henry Ellis (London: Printed for the Camden Society, by John Bowyer Nichols and Son, Parliament Street, MDCCCXLVI), p. 29. All further references to Vergil’s Anglia Historia are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[3] William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1988), p. 29. All further references to William’s Historia rerum Anglicarum are to this edition and are given in the text.

[4] On the definitions of the auctor, scriptor, commentator, and compiler, see A. J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London: Scolar Press, 1984), p. 94.

[5] John Leland, De uiris Illustribus, ed. and trans. James P. Carley (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2010), p. 321. All further reference to Leland’s De uiris Illustribus are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text. It should be noted that Leland’s length discussion on Polydore Vergil and King Arthur were later insertions, and the entry on Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first version of De uirius Illustribus was purely concerned with the writer in question.

[6] A. J. Minnis, The Medieval Theory of Authorship, p. 10.

February meeting: King Arthur in Scotland

11th February / Room 2.50 / 3-5pm

This month we are reading a selection of extracts from fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Scottish chronicles that focus on the story of King Arthur, as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Some of the nuances in these texts require a sound understanding of Geoffrey’s version of the Arthurian narrative, so do recap his account if you have time. The dates and manuscript context, along with a brief description of the selected texts, are as follows:

Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (1440s)
John of Fordun is credited with writing the first narrative of Scottish history. In his Chronica Gentis Scotorum, John recorded the history of Scotland from its foundation by the legendary Gaythelos and Scota and ended with the death of King David I in 1153; it was later continued in Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon (1440-7) until the death of James I in 1437. Bower made some small revisions to the Arthurian section in John’s Chronica.

The Scottis Originale (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries)
This chronicle is a condensed and popular version of the Fordun-Bower tradition written in Old Scots. The text survives in three manuscripts: National Archives of Scotland MS Dalhousie GD 45/31/1-II; British Library MS Royal 17.D.xx; and National Library of Scotland MS 165000 (or the Asloan MS). The Dalhousie and Royal manuscripts were produced in the fifteenth century (1460s), while the Asloan manuscript was written in the sixteenth century after the Battle of Flodden (1513).

Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum (1527)
Hector Boece published his Historia Gentis Scotorum in 1527 (we are reading a version from 1575). Boece’s Historia recorded the history of Scotland from its foundation to the accession of James III of Scotland in 1460. The Historia is strongly nationalistic and patriotic, and it was designed to counter to work of John Mair – Boece’s contemporary – who advocated union between England and Scotland through royal intermarriage. Boece’s work shows the influence of John of Fordun and Walter Bower, as well as various classical histories. William Stewart later translated the Historia into Scots, and English Renaissance historians, including Polydore Vergil and Raphael Holinshed, made use of Boece in their own works.

 
Try to think about some answers to the following questions as you read the selection of texts:

  1. In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae, Anna is the sister of Arthur and the mother of Gawain and Modred. John of Fordun, however, made Anna into Arthur’s aunt, and this was accepted by his continuators, such as Walter Bower. What do you make of this revision of lineage in the Scottish tradition?
  2. How does the story of the conception of Arthur change and develop across this selection of texts? [Note that Walter Bower was the first chronicler to explicitly denounce Arthur as a bastard]
  3. How is Arthur portrayed in the Scottish tradition? Why is he rejected as king and why is Modred considered to be the rightful heir of Britain?
  4. What is the significance of oaths and treaties in the Scottis Originale and Boece’s Gentis Scotorum?
  5. Boece makes Lot and Modred into Picts rather than Scots: what might be the reason for this change? [Remember that in Geoffrey’s Historia the Picts were often allied with the Saxons, the enemies of the Britons]
  6. What do you think about the pejorative comments that John of Fordun and Hector Boece make about Geoffrey of Monmouth?

Below is some historical context about Anglo-Scottish relations and the political use of the Arthurian legend in the late thirteenth century, which may help you to interpret some of the themes and issues which arise in this selection of texts.

 
Historical Context

Before the end of the thirteenth century, England had little influence over Scotland. The Scots insisted that they were independent of the English crown, and they resisted the threat of imperial conquest; however, the Scottish Succession crisis and the first interregnum (1290-92), which saw the death of the immediate heirs of King Alexander III of Scotland, provided Edward I with an excuse to attempt to subjugate Scotland to England. John Balliol was initially elected king of Scotland, and Edward, who oversaw the proceedings, managed to get the Scots to swear allegiance to him as overlord. Nevertheless, John Balliol was forced to abdicate in 1296, which began the second interregnum (1296-1306). During the period guardians such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce ruled Scotland. The absence of a legitimate king prompted Edward to launch a military campaign against Scotland in order to bring it under English control, and so beginning the First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328).

In 1301, Edward launched his sixth campaign against the Scots. That year, Pope Boniface sent a letter to Edward warning him against conducting his aggressive wars of conquest, but the king ignored his request. Edward responded to Boniface by claiming that he had a rightful claim to sovereignty over the Scots, and he used the Arthurian legend to support his claim:

Item, Arturus rex Britonum princeps famosissimus Scociam sibi rebellem subjectit, et pene totam gentem delevit et postea quemdam nomine Auguselum in regem Scocie prefecit et cum postea idem res Arturus apud civitatem Legionum festum faceret celeberimum, interfuerunt ibidem omnes reges sibi subjecti inter quos Anguselus rex Scocie servicium pro regno Scocie exhibens debitum gladium regis Artuti detulit ante ipsum et successive omnes reges Scocie omnibus regibus Britonum fuere subjecti. Succedentibus autem regibus Anglis in predicta insular et ipsius monarchiam et dominium optinentibus subsequenter Edwardus dictus senior filius Elvredi regi Anglie Scotorum Cumbrorum et Stregwallorum reges sibi tanquam superiori domino subjectos habuit et submissos.

[Again, Arthur, king of the Britons, a prince most renowned, subjected to himself a rebellious Scotland, destroyed almost the whole nation, and afterwards installed as king of Scotland one Angusel by name. Afterwards, when King Arthur held a most famous feast at Caerleon, there were present there all the king subject to him, and among them Angusel, king of Scotland by bearing the sword of King Arthur before him; and in succession all the kings of Scotland have been subject to all the kings of the Britons. Succeeding kings of England enjoyed both monarchy and dominion in the island, and subsequently Edward, known as the elder, son of Alfred, king of England, had subject and subordinate to him, as lord superior, the kings of the Scots, the Cumbrians, and the Strathclyde Welsh].[1]

Edward’s letter borrows events from the Arthurian narrative in the Historia regum Britanniae, most notably Arthur’s conquest of the Scots and his subsequent installation of Augusel, the brother of Lot of Lothian, as king of Scotland. The letter also demonstrates how Geoffrey’s text could be manipulated for political purposes, and the discourse of power utilized in this text supports Edward’s wars of conquest. In his appeal to ‘British’ history, Edward presents himself as Arthur redivivus, with the implication that he too should control Scotland.

Edward’s letter to Boniface is a prime example of the reception of Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae in the early fourteenth century. Edward deployed the story of Arthur for an explicitly political purpose, and his version of Arthur directly antagonized the Scots. The English Arthur was an island overlord, who controlled the whole of Britain, and who conquered those who rebelled against him. This dominant idea of Arthur provoked response primarily from the Scottish chroniclers who rejected Arthur as their king on the grounds that he was illegitimate, and they preferred to believe that Modred, the son of Anna and Lot of Lothian, was the true heir to the British throne. The Scots also disbelieved the idea that Arthur conquered Scotland, and so they managed to maintain their independence.

[1] ‘Sanctissmio Patri Bonifacio, or To the most Holy Father Boniface’, in Anglo-Scottish Relations, 1174-1328: some selected documents, ed. E. L. G. Stones (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), pp. 192-219 (p. 197).