The Arthurian Game of Origins (Thesis Thursday #4)

Henry here pictured as a young king, with his favorite scale model of one of the churches he founded in hand, as was his usual habit.

Not that it was a hell people hadn’t seen coming for many years. Good king Henry I, a younger son of William the Conqueror, who at his death in 1135 had ruled for thirty-five years1 had lost his last legitimate son in 1120. Poor William Adelin never got to be William III, for he drowned while trying to save his half-sister when their ship, la Blanche-Nef2, was lost in the Channel. When it became clear to Henry he’d never father another son, he decided to designate his daughter Matilda as the next ruler, forcing all his magnates to swear (on several occasions) to uphold his decision after his death. It was a plan nobody thought would work, and the closer Henry grew to death, the more fierce the politicking for a viable successor became. Names floated for the role included Geoffrey’s probable first patron, Robert of Gloucester (though he ultimately refused and sided with his sister). Robert might have been illegitimate, but so was the Conqueror, and he had done all right.3 But before Matilda, Robert, or anyone else could get in position, Stephen, Henry’s nephew, violated his earlier oaths and had himself crowned king. Matilda tried to one up him by declaring herself Empress of England. Both gathered their allies and set to war. The nineteen-year conflict that followed is now known as The Anarchy, a time that a contemporary chronicler says was so terrible for England’s inhabitants that the only explanation could be that “Jesus and all his saints were sleeping.”

Note to popular blonde country singers. Make sure Jesus is not sleeping when you ask Him to take the wheel.

Geoffrey’s History was written during these last days of Henry’s reign before The Anarchy, when everyone in England was holding their breath, waiting for the storm that the king’s end would unleash. Surely, there is something of a gentle political hint in Geoffrey’s advice to Robert in the dedication to his History. Saying, as Geoffrey did, that the kingdom looks to Robert as if it had a second Henry is awful sugggestive when the first Henry’s about to be no more, but Geoffrey never gives us the impression of superior political insight elsewhere. When he was rapidly changing the dedication of the History, scratching out Robert and quickly writing in the name of whoever he thought might want to favor a cleric with a nice bishopric or other plum post, it’s just as likely that Geoffrey was following events as they unfolded rather than anticipating–and not necessarily following them very skillfully. For years later after much of the dust has cleared, we find Geoffrey still begging and scraping for advancement–and none too subtly–in the preface to Life of Merlin. It’s hard to believe that a guy sufficiently plugged in to keep track of all those shifting alliances would have ended up with nothing to show for it, though not impossible.

Either way, we find ourselves again staring down the problem of Geoffrey’s reputation as a liar. We have to take Geoffrey at his word that he did wish preferment and that he hadn’t got enough of it in the years immediately following the circulation of his History. And how can we trust a man who tells us with a straight face that one of Britain’s lost kings was a man named Bladud, a necromancer who built himself wings and died trying to fly from Bath to London?4 Certainly, no one has any reason to believe that Geoffrey actually got a book in British from Archdeacon Walter. The old “lost book” trick was one that lots of medieval writers pulled, and usually we read it as an attempt at self-effacement. Originality was not prized for much of the medieval period. The oldest works were the best, so it was sometimes best to invent an older work and pretend you were merely translating it. Yet Archdeacon Walter was a real guy, a fellow signatory to some of the charters Geoffrey signed as Geoffrey Arthur, an actual cleric of some standing in Oxford, the kind of person whose good side Geoffrey needed to be on if he wanted to move up in Anglo-Norman circles. It’s impossible to say what role he would have been comfortable in playing in Geoffrey’s long con, but it’s still important to note that Geoffrey wasn’t in this alone and that he was spinning his outrageous stories in order to move up in the world.

Yes, Geoffrey was a liar, but he was also something of a salesman.5 His product was that commodity with which he had become so intimately connected that it served as his last name. His market was the ranks of Anglo-Norman nobility that ruled England and that were preparing to start throwing sharp things, flaming things, and flaming sharp things at each other even as the ink was drying on his parchment.

The Anglo-Normans had a prodigious appetite for history, an appetite that prompted so many people to take up the historian’s pen that it fueled what we today sometimes call the Twelfth Century Renaissance. So while the market was ready, it was also tight. All the noise in the afterword to his History, the warnings to other historians not to try to horn in on his peculiar specialty, we ought to recognize as the bluster of a salesman trying to protect both market and goods. Only Geoffrey may sell you the real story about Arthur, because only Geoffrey has the special British book.


  1. Which is two-hundred and forty five in dog years and nearly that many in English king years. []
  2. The White Ship was the Titanic of its day. According to contemporary historians who were probably making things up, the prince and his party spent too long drinking on the coast, trusting the speedy White Ship, the fastest in the fleet, would get them home before there was trouble. But in the dark, and with a drunken helmsman, they instead hit a rock and capsized, all lost save a lowly butcher who managed to survive death from exposure because of the thick rude clothes he wore while butchering. []
  3. Robert was likely the last illegitimate son who ever had a serious chance of taking the English throne. The prohibition against illegitimate sons grew as the Middle Ages continued. []
  4. Foolish guy only got half way, too! []
  5. That may be a tautology, I know. []
  6. And if you can read this, you’ve left your RSS Reader behind, so I don’t know why I’m talking to you in this footnote. Oh well. Hi there, RSS converts! []

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  • Linda McCabe

    To add a little bit of popular history to this narrative you might want to include a mention of Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” describing the period known as the Anarchy.  He for some inexplicable reason changed the name Matilda to Maud.

    • Got Medieval

      Never fear, Follett’s in the clear. Maud was one of Matilda’s nicknames. Makes as much since as Bob and Robert or Jack and John.

      • Jen Grinnell

        Or Jim for Giles.

  • Anya Stickney

    I never knew a thesis could be so entertaining.  I can’t wait for next Thursday!

  • Mark

    Thanks, I enjoyed this.

  • Maria

    I had to read all three pages after you dared us.  I enjoyed them all.

  • Justy Engle

    This probably won’t make you feel better, but I found this an interesting article about the potential future of Humanities dissertations.

  • Anonymous Soprano

    You know, it never ceases to amaze me that the explanations of history’s oddest, well, mysteries always turn out to be the most mundane, dull, and frankly, depressing things. Geoffrey could have been many things – an international (well, national, anyway) man of mystery! A man with his finger on the pulse of the nation! A canny, savvy player in a world amok. 

    …nope. Just an unsuccessfully upwardly-mobile clergyman, “who translated the history of the kings of Britain from British into Latin,” and  became the bishop of St. Asaph in Wales.”

    Well, at least [what we presume to be] his stories had something interesting in them.

    …we always assume that other periods in time were more interesting than ours. I’m pretty sure the answer that is, “nope.”

  • Judy S

    Not all women in 12th-c England were named Matilda. The non-Matildas were named Marie (e.g. the ones who wrote the Lais, Fables, St. Patrick’s Purgatory, and Life of St. Audrey, plus all the ones who have been identifies as possibly being that author, plus their mothers). You need to consider this alternative explanation for your monogram data.

  • Judy S

    Got through page 2 and I have to point out–Matilda daughter of Henry I, aka Maud (Mechthild, etc.) was Empress through being married to a Holy Roman Emperor. Even after this Emp, another Henry I think, died, she was still  referred to by the title–it had nothing to do with her insular ambitions.

    • Got Medieval

      Hmm.  The way I phrased it was influenced by someone I read (the exact someone buried under layers of other someones in my memory), who argued that Matilda relied on the title Empress because even though Stephen’s crowning himself king was a problem for her, she was unwilling to damage the title and office of monarch by declaring herself queen.  Two people claiming the title (even though one gendered King and one Queen) would’ve made the title suspect even if she did overthrow him. I’ll need to find out who said that and why.  (Perhaps she added Anglorum or Britanniae or something to her title of Empress after Henry I died. Another thing to check.)

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  • Anonymous

     Cf. That really crappy King Arthur movie that came out a few years ago.

    This footnote is always applicable; you don’t even need to have a specific Arthur movie in mind. They’re all crappy and ahistorical, and there’s always one that came out a few years ago.

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