Enter Geoffrey the mad doctor cum seamster to stitch new history onto that rapidly approaching ending. The first stitch he sews goes by the name Constantine, the man who will go on to become Uther’s father, and thus Arthur’s grandfather. Typically, scholars tend to say of Constantine that Geoffrey confused at least two historical figures, Constantine III the soldier who usurped and ruled Rome from 407 until 411, and Constantine of Damnonia, who may or may not be the same Constantine as appears in the Welsh genealogies as Custennin Gorneu (Constantine of Cornwall). More likely, I think, Geoffrey was purposely conflating two partially known figures into one because he wished his Arthur to possess claim to each of their claims to fame. Like Constantine III the Roman usurper, Geoffrey’s Constantine rules Britain for many years before being killed by treachery,1 and so like his grandfather, Arthur will go on to rule over almost all of Rome as part of a kingdom that stretches out from Britain. And like Constantine of Cornwall, Geoffrey’s Constantine could trace his lineage back to Conan2 Meriadoc, the British noble who at the time of Geoffrey’s work had come to be known as the founder of a British colony in Armorica, or what would later, after its British founders, come to be called Brittany. Brittany will prove an important ally to Geoffrey’s Arthur when he is conquering that Europe-spanning empire of his, and connection to one of the more august continental noble families doesn’t hurt his case, either. Moreover, Constantine III comes pre-packaged with a handy successor and the story of dual betrayal, good hooks for Geoffrey to build upon in later chapters.
In the histories Geoffrey didn’t write, it should be noted, Constantine III comes off as rather a bad sort. Bede is particularly harsh, calling him “the meanest of soldiers,” raised to the imperial rank “only for his name’s sake, and without any worth to recommend him.” Not so in Geoffrey. In the Historia, Constantine is the brother of the king of Brittany, Aldroneus, to whom the British send their archbishop Guethelin to beg him to take the throne. Aldroneus explains that Britain has all but been ruined by the successive wars against the Picts and the Romans, so while he is flattered to be asked to be king, he prefers to stay home all the same. He sends his noble brother Constantine instead to save the British from their enemies. Forthwith, Constantine does just that, driving the Picts and Britain’s other foes back speedily. When the dust settles, he takes an unnamed wife from a Roman family and settles down to rule, producing three sons, Constans, Aurelius Ambrosius, and Uther, who will one day be called Pendragon. The eldest, Constans, is sent to a monastery to take holy orders, while Aurelius and Uther are sent to Archbishop Guethelin for their fostering.
Once the sons are on the stage, that’s all she wrote for Constantine. A sentence later, a Pictish assassin manages to lure him off to the woods for a private meeting and stabs him with a dagger when no one is looking. Once again, Britain is without a king, and once again the Picts appear on the horizon threatening conquest. A crisis of succession ensues, with some parties favoring Uther, some Aurelius, and some other unnamed royal family members. Uther and Aurelius, the impersonal narrative voice informs us, are but babes in their cradles still, and unable to take the throne, an argument we also hear from the mouth of the newly introduced character Vortigern, who will serve as the major villain for the next few decades of Uther’s life.
So far, Geoffrey’s grafting has been fairly slight. Sure, two Constantines had to be whittled down into one and patched up, but for the most part, he fits his creations into already empty spaces in the historical record. Nennius, Bede, and Gildas alike are mostly silent about who is ruling Britain immediately before Vortigern takes the throne, and their omission is all Geoffrey needs as cover.
Geoffrey has the deadlock over Britain’s next ruler broken by this Vortigern, Duke of the Gewisseans, who proposes fetching Constans out of the monastery and making him king, thinking that he will be able to manipulate the unworldly prince and thus rule through him as his puppet. Again, the details of the life of Constantine III prove useful raw material for Geoffrey, as Constantine’s son Constans was actually raised in a monastery before becoming co-emperor with his father. He, too, is killed in the pre-Galfridian histories popular in Britain at the time by an unspecified “treachery,” a blank that Geoffrey is happy to fill with more of his story.
Vortigern only crowns this Constans because he knows he can control him, and when he tires of the proxy kingship, he manages to convince his naive charge that the Picts are preparing an alliance with the Danes and the Noreweigans and that all three plan to soon invade. But the invasion can be headed off if Constans invites some Pictish ambassadors to the court for negotiations. Vortigern’s plan gets kind of Rube-Goldbergy at this point. In order to win the sympathies of the Picts he has invited in, Vortigern lavishes them with treasure for some time. When he’s sure they love him he invites them over for drinks, knowing that the drunken Picts cannot hold their liquor. Over said drinks, he casually laments how poorly he’s being treated by Constans, knowing also that the Picts have terrible tempers. As he planned, the Picts fly into a rage when they hear that Vortigern has been mistreated, and they go to have words with Constans that end in their killing him where he stands. No loss, they figure, for their friend Vorty will certainly reward them once he becomes king, which he can now do because of their drunken regicide. Vortigern promptly denounces the Picts, pretending he has no clue what got into them, and has them executed, taking the throne for himself.
Here we see Geoffrey using two surgical techniques that he will use throughout the section of the Historia that deals with Uther and his famous son: crimes and insults that previous historians have attributed to and hurled at the native British will be slyly severed from their original historical context and regrafted into Geoffrey’s pattern as details describing someone else. Gildas in particular singles out the British for scorn by labeling them traitors and murderers with a tendency to kill off the Roman ambassadors and envoys they keep begging to visit them and help them with the Picts. In Geoffrey, the Picts are the treacherous ones where diplomatic double-crosses are involved. Insinuations of internecine betrayals bringing down the original Constantine and Constans are shifted to the outsiders as well. And when all else fails, there’s always Vortigern to scapegoat–though he hardly found praise anywhere even before Geoffrey got his hands on him.
This is not to say that Geoffrey’s historical transplants are performed with surgeon-like precision. Indeed, the heavy threads he uses to sew up his monstrous progeny often poke through and gap, revealing his work. During Vortigern’s rise to the throne and his tumultuous rule, Geoffrey has to massage the timeline to allow his grafts room to take. In particular, Uther and Aurelius keep having to be shuffled back offstage and into their cradles, even as time continues to pass and events continue to pile up in the chronology. They are too young to rule when their father dies, and still described as babies some time later when Constans has been killed and Vortigern has taken the throne. Because of their tender years, they are shipped across the channel to their uncle’s kingdom, now ruled by his successor Budes. But then, almost immediately after becoming king, Vortigern hears rumors that the two exiled princes have gathered an army and an invasion is imminent, so imminent that Vortigern enlists the aid of the newly arrived Saxons led by Hengist and Horsa to protect him against them. The always-but-not-quite-old-enough brothers will keep threatening and threatening but still not actually appearing for many years, years Geoffrey has to cut apart and remove from the chronology he inherits/swipes from Nennius, rearrange, then sew back together without anyone noticing. After a while, it feels like several lifetimes have been shoved into the time between Vortigern’s accession and the brothers Pendragon’s arrival at Dover.
But in this, Geoffrey and I are once again united, for I must put Uther away once more, for I have already shoved so much into this post already that it bulges at the seams.3 Take heart, for it will only be a couple of days until the next Thesis Thursday. Uther is coming, Geoffrey and I both swear! He’s just raising an army from his cradle, he’ll be here any moment now, surely, as soon as he’s out of diapers and has his longbowmen trained…
- And has a son named Constans who spent his early life in a monastery before ruling [↩]
- Sadly, not the barbarian. [↩]
- Perhaps fewer fond Bert Lahr reminiscences next time out. [↩]
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