Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric of Welsh descent who was born in the 11th century. While serving in ecclesiastical positions, Geoffrey had access to a rich body of Latin literature, and drawing on these as well as his Welsh ancestry, he penned down many works regarding the early Breton and Celtic period of England and Wales.
His most notable work was ‘History of the Kings of Britain’. Although inaccurate, this work became immensely popular as a work of history as well as a source for many imaginative literary works throughout the medieval period.
Geoffrey of Monmouth was born in mainland Wales or the Welsh Marches in the 11th century. The name he uses for himself in his works suggests that he hailed from the Monmouth region of Wales. Although born in Wales and having some knowledge of the Welsh language, Geoffrey is historically believed to have been of Breton descent.
He served as a teacher in the ecclesiastical establishments in the Oxford area from 1129 to 1151 and probably taught at St. George’s College as well. During his lifetime, Wales remained embroiled in the civil war and he spent nearly all his life outside of Wales. He assumed the position of the Bishop of St. Asaph in 1152 and died three years later.
Being associated with the ecclesiastical establishments all his life, Geoffrey had access to a rich body of literature and was fluent in the Latin language. He consequently penned down a number of works in Latin. As an author, Geoffrey was interested in penning down the histories of Britain, making use of many mythical and legendary works and oral traditions in doing so.
One of his notable works was the Prophecies of Merlin, related to the legend of King Arthur. Another was a poem titled ‘Life of Merlin’ which recounted the later portion of the legendary character of Merlin. But the work for which Geoffrey became popular throughout Continental Europe for many centuries to come was the ‘History of the Kings of Britain.’
Historia Regum Britanniae or the ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ was the work for which Geoffrey was most prominently known during the medieval period. In this work, Geoffrey penned down a history of the rulers of Britain from its settlement by the legendary figure of Brutus in the 2nd century B.C. until the 7th century.
It is through this work that many Breton kings of pre-Anglo-Saxon England became famously known in medieval Europe. These included Leir, Cymbeline, and most notably, King Arthur. Geoffrey wrote an elaborate, though a historically untenable and imaginative account of King Arthur[‘s reign, effectively laying the foundations of the Arthurian canon and furnishing numerous legends for it.
It was largely this imaginative version of history that became popular with medieval artists and earned Geoffrey lasting fame. The work was considered historically accurate by medieval authors despite obvious discrepancies and it was only in the post-medieval period that historians discredited it as mostly a compilation of legends, myths, and oral traditions.