Geoffrey of Monmouth provides the first full length account of the story of King Arthur's career, as such it can be stated that Arthurian literature begins with the Historia regum Britanniae (De gestis Britonum), c.1138.
Arthur occupies more than one fifth of Geoffrey's History of the Kings of Britain; out of eleven books Arthur’s career spreads across four, making his entrance toward the end of Book Eight, his exploits completely fill Books Nine and Ten, and his exit is set at the beginning of Book Eleven. His reign is without doubt the pinnacle of Geoffrey's work on the Kings of Britain.
Liber VIII. Book Eight of the Historia regum Britanniae closes with Arthur's conception at Tintagel through Merlin's magic and swiftly moves on to his father Uther Pendragon's death at St Albans after being poisoned by the Saxons.
Liber IX. Following the death of Uther Book Nine begins with his son Arthur invested as king. No sooner than he is crowned than Arthur set off to fight Saxons, Picts and Scots by the river Duglas near York. The enemy retreated into the city where Arthur subjected them to a siege. The Saxons awaited the arrival of Chelricus from Germany. When Chelricus arrived with six hundred ships of pagan warriors Arthur called off the siege and withdrew to London. Arthur then sent for assistance from his nephew Hoelus and the Armorican Britons. When Hoelus arrived with fifteen thousand men they immediately went to Kaerluidcoit, which Geoffrey tells us is also named Lincoln in the province of Lindsey, which was under siege from the Saxons. Once battle commenced six thousand Saxons fell, the rest abandoned the siege and quickly fled to the forest of Celidon. Arthur surrounded them and after three days the Saxons requested to leave and return to Germany, they left hostages and promised to pay tribute.
On the return voyage, breaking their promise, the Saxons turned back and landed at Totnes, ravaging the land as far as the Severn estuary and subjected the town of Bath to a siege. Hearing of this Arthur abandoned his expedition against the Scots and Picts who were besieging his nephew Hoelus who had been taken ill in the city of Dumbarton. Arthur headed south to the region of Bath. So great is Arthur's victory that many of the Saxons under Chelricus fled. Following his success Arthur immediately hurried back to Scotland and ordered Cador, Duke of Cornwall to pursue the Saxons. Cador caught up with them at Thanet and inflicted great slaughter, killing Chelricus.
Cador then went north to assist Arthur against the Scots and Picts who were now blockaded at Loch Lomond after fighting three battles against Arthur. Gillamuris, King of Ireland, came to the aid of the Scots with a fleet of ships but Arthur abandoned the blockade and turned on them who, after heavy losses, were forced to sail home. He then turned his attention back to the Scots and Picts who Geoffrey says he wiped out with utter ruthlessness.
Arthur then turned his attention to the islands and conquered Ireland and then Iceland. The kings of Gotland and the Orkneys submitted and paid tribute to Arthur. He then set off for Norway and Denmark. After accepting their submissions he sailed for Gaul and engaged with the Roman tribune Frollo who ruled there on behalf of Emperor Leo.
After some of Frollo's men, the best of the Gallic knights, moved across to join Arthur, Frollo withdrew to Paris. Arthur besieged the city which prompted Frollo to come out and fight Arthur in single combat to end the suffering of the citizens. Arthur defeats Frollo by cleaving his head in two with his sword Caliburnus. Then the city opened its gates and surrendered to Arthur. He now divided his forces in two with Hoelus subduing Aquitaine and Gascony while Arthur dealt with the other provinces.
Having spent nine years subduing all the regions of Gaul, Arthur then returned to Britain. During the following Whitsun celebrations at Caerleon Arthur received a delegation from Lucius Hiberius, procurator of the Roman republic. They presented a letter that demanded tribute from the Britons for taking the Roman province of Gaul. Cador, Duke of Cornwall, states that the Britons have been at peace for five years without being tried in war, and claimed that God had set the Romans on course to allow them to recover their old virtue.
Arthur, with unanimous support from his recently acquired empire, ordered his armies to meet him at the harbour of Barfleur on the first day of August from where they would advance into the land of the Burgundians. Meanwhile, Arthur sent a letter to the Romans stating that he would never pay tribute nor would he be going to Rome to face their sentence, but demanded from them what they had demanded from him.
Liber X. The entire contents of Book Ten of the Historia regum Britanniae is dedicated to Arthur's second Gallic campaign and its finale at the Battle of Siesia.
Before leaving Britain, Arthur charged his nephew Modred and Queen Guanhumara with the governance of the country in his absence. After departing from Southampton Arthur had a dream during the crossing of a Bear and a Dragon. He men saw this as a good omen but Arthur believed this was relevant to his own fate.
On landing Arthur fought with the giant of Mont-St-Michel and then retold the story of his victory over Ritho the giant who made a cloak from the beards of kings.
Giants defeated, Arthur headed for Autun where he expected to find Lucius Hiberius. Arriving at the river Aube he discovered that Lucius was camped not far away. He sent a delegation, including his nephew Gawain, to tell Lucius to leave France or advance the following day. After some minor skirmishes the senator Petreius Cocta advanced with 10,000 men but he was captured by Arthur's men and taken to Paris with other prisoners.
At this point Lucius was undecided if he should push on and engage with Arthur or retreat to Autun and wait for help from emperor Leo. He entered Langres intending to march to Autun that night. When Arthur heard of this he resolved to cut him off that same night, leaving the city he occupied a valley called Siesia, through which Lucius would pass.
Having learnt of the planned ambush Lucius abandoned his intentions to go to Autun and decided to attack the Britons in the same valley. A great battle ensued when the two armies met with many casualties on both sides in which Lucius was struck down by an unknown lance, and Arthur was victorious. Lucius's body was sent to Rome with a message that this was the only tribute that Britain needed to pay.
Arthur then decided to March on Rome but turned back when he heard that his nephew Modred had usurped the crown and was in union with Queen Guanhumara.
Liber XI. The beginning of Book Eleven details the final battle at Camblam (Camlann). On hearing of Modred taking the crown Arthur hurried back to Britain accompanied only by the kings of the islands and their troops leaving Hoelus, Duke of Brittany, with his forces to maintain peace in Gaul.
Modred had sent the Saxon leader Chelricus back to Germany to gather as many men as he could and return to Britain immediately. In return Modred promised him all of the island from the river Humber to Scotland and the territory of Kent held by Hengist and Horsa in Vortigern's time. Chelricus quickly returned with eight hundred ships of warriors. Modred also called on Arthur's sworn enemies the Picts, Scots and Irish to join his forces. Geoffrey tells us that Modred's total force numbered some eighty thousand fighting men.
Modred attacked Arthur as soon as he landed at Richborough, with Gawain killed in the fighting. Modred pulled his forces back to Winchester. After burying his dead, Arthur pursued him with great slaughter on both sides. Modred took ship and fled to Cornwall where Arthur followed him to the river Camblam where the final conflict unfolded.
Modred was killed in the battle and Arthur being mortally wounded was taken to the Isle of Avallon to be healed of his wounds. He handed the crown of Britain to his relative Constantius, son of Cador Duke of Cornwall.
Geoffrey of Monmouth: The History of the Kings of Britain (An edition and translation of the De gestis Britonum), Latin text edited by Michael D Reeve, trans. Neil Wright, Boydell Press, 2009.
With Arthur’s victory over the Romans in Gaul, Geoffrey reached the climax of the Historia regum Britannia. This simple fact is often overlooked as it does not fit with the image of Arthur when reconstructed as a “historical” Dark Age warlord leading the native resistance against the advancing Anglo-Saxons in a post-Roman Britain.
It is known that Geoffrey used Gildas, Bede and the Historia Brittonum (Nennius) and no doubt pulled the theme of Arthur’s battles from the latter. It is evident that here Geoffrey departed from his sources as he only briefly follows the Nennian battle list and his source for Arthur’s Gallic campaign has never been found. Consequently, Arthur’s exploits in Gaul are often dismissed as pure invention or, at the other extreme, used in imaginative reconstructions by today’s popular authors claiming to have found the king’s true identity producing vivid accounts of a total European conquest in which Arthur even became known as the “King of Greece”.
Geoffrey certainly pulled names and places from various sources disregarding any set chronology to make it fit the sequence in his story. He fails to adhere to the list of twelve battles fought by Arthur as recorded in the 9th century Historia Brittonum; only three of Geoffrey’s battles can be reconciled with this list. He ignores Nennius’s first battle on the river Glein and concentrates Arthur’s earliest battles on the river Duglas near York, then moves to a siege of the city. Geoffrey’s “Duglas” is clearly intended to be the river Dubglas were Arthur fought his second, third, fourth and fifth battles according to the Historia Brittonum. Geoffrey ignores the sixth battle on the river Bassa. According to Geoffrey, after Duglas, Arthur then besieged the Saxons at York but withdrew to London when Chelricus arrived from Germany with six hundred ships. When Hoelus of the Armoricans arrived with fifteen thousand men, he and Arthur immediately made for Kaerluidcoit which was under siege from the Saxons, presumably by the same group from York. Geoffrey tells us this place is also named Lincoln in the province of Lindsey, the region identified as part of Lincolnshire.
In the Historia Brittonum the four battles on the river Dubglas are said to be in the “region of Linnius” which is equated with Lindsey, so here Geoffrey maintains the general location, he seems to be locating the Duglas somewhere south of York. After breaking the siege at Lincoln the Saxons withdraw to the forest of Celidon, which Geoffrey takes from the seventh battle of the Historia Brittonum in the “Caledonian Forest, that is, the Battle of Celidon Coit”. Most commentators see this as meaning Scotland but clearly to Geoffrey it was not far from York and therefore in Northern England.
The Historia Brittonum records Arthur’s ninth battle as in the “City of the Legion” (Urbe Legionis). Perhaps Geoffrey identified York as the City of the Legions, or he may have meant Lincoln? Both were significant legionary fortresses in their day and Geoffrey would probably have been aware of their Roman remains. However, Lincoln was never recorded as “Kaerluidcoit” which Geoffrey provides as an alternative name. The Historia Brittonum listed 28 cities in Britain, the twenty-eighth is recorded as “cair-luit-coit” (Fortress in the Grey Wood) which is identified as Wall-by-Lichfield in Staffordshire; Lincoln is notably absent from the list of cities. However, “The City of the Legion” is generally considered as either Caerleon or Chester by most attempting to decipher the battle list.
Geoffrey does not include the Historia Brittonum’s eighth battle at Guinnion fort, the tenth on the bank of the river Tribruit (Tryfrwyd) nor the eleventh battle on the hill called Agned (named as Breguoin in some manuscripts). Geoffrey tells us that Mons Agned was one of cities built by Ebraucus which he identifies as Edinburgh but he does not mention a battle fought there.
Geoffrey includes Arthur’s twelfth and final battle from the Historia Brittonum at Badon which he identifies at Bath Hill. Badon is undoubtedly Arthur’s greatest victory over the advancing Saxons, the culmination of a series of battles reflecting Gildas’s account of Ambrosius rallying the Britons leading up to that point.
It is likely that Geoffrey simply ignored the battle sites that he could not identify. Indeed, many of the locations of the battles listed in the Historia Brittonum have defied positive identification since being recorded over a thousand years ago.
Significantly none of Arthur’s battles in the Historia Brittonum have been positively identified in Gaul. Yet after the victory at Badon, and immediately heading north to defeat the Picts and Scots at Dumbarton (Alcud), Moray and Loch Lomond, Geoffrey takes Arthur on a conquest of north-west Europe. As detailed in Book Nine, Geoffrey has Arthur conquer Ireland, Iceland, Gotland, the Orkneys, Norway and Denmark before heading for Gaul for the first time and defeats Frollo, the Roman Tribune. After coming back to Britain, Arthur returns to Gaul when the Romans demand tribute from him for his previous incursion into their province.
Following Arthur’s second successful campaign in Gaul, this time defeating Lucius Hiberius, he is about to march on Rome but before he crosses the Alps he receives news of Modred’s usurpation and returns to Britain. He pursues Modred across southern Britain which ultimately leads to his final battle at Camblam (Camlann) in Cornwall. Modred’s treachery and love triangle with Guanhumara (Gwenhwyfar/Guinevere) is unknown before Geoffrey. Modred (Medraut) is included in the Welsh Annals as falling along with Arthur at Camlann but there is nothing in this entry to suggest he was Arthur’s nemesis, indeed in early Welsh tradition he was noted for his valour and virtue.
Oddly, Geoffrey has Modred travel from land-locked Winchester to Cornwall by ship. He must have imagined he travelled southward from Winchester to Southampton then travelled along the coast. Camlann is not far from Tintagel and perhaps Geoffrey had it in mind to take Arthur’s journey full circle and place his death near the place of his conception.
No pre-Galfridian source (literature that is generally agreed to date from before the Historia regum Britanniae, c.1138) recalls Arthur returning from Gaul as a prelude to fighting Modred at Camlann which again must be attributed to Geoffrey’s inventiveness. This creative gift of Geoffrey’s is again emphasised by characters from earlier in his tale that are used again at Camlann; Modred calls Chelricus from Germany, who was killed by Cador after Badon, and Cassibellanus from the 1st century BC suddenly appears from nowhere to be present at the battle at Camblam in the 6th century AD. There are many other examples, too many to mention here.
Geoffrey’s disregard for the original locations and sequence of the battle list included in the Historia Brittonum emphasises his “creative” talent. We can only positively identify three locations from that list: River Duglas, Forest of Celidon, Badon; for the rest he seems to have disregarded the original document and felt at liberty to select his own choice. There is certainly no record outside of Geoffrey that has Arthur travelling north to fight Picts and Scots immediately after Badon. Many commentators today consider Geoffrey took selective elements, people and placenames, from various sources and significantly embellished them to construct his own version of the story of Arthur.
Without doubt Book Ten is the pinnacle of Arthur’s career and the climax of Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae; the entire content is dedicated to Arthur's second Gallic campaign and its finale at the Battle of Siesia. This event was clearly a major inspiration for Geoffrey. Yet, there is no known source for Geoffrey’s Arthurian campaign in Gaul. A Breton source is often argued as providing Geoffrey with geographical knowledge of events in Gaul, but as yet a Breton source has never been uncovered that records Arthur’s Gallic war as detailed by Geoffrey.
We can immediately disregard the Arthur of early Welsh tales that journeys to foreign lands to steal cauldrons and kill giants, witches and magical boars; these accounts are mythical in nature and here Arthur is dabbling in the supernatural. What’s more, in these early Welsh tales, Arthur always journeys west to Ireland or the Otherworld, never to Gaul. And never fights Romans.
We are left with the choice of either accepting Geoffrey’s account of Arthur as accurate and constructed from another source, now lost and totally unknown to us; or he simply invented much of it, heavily embellishing his source document.
It is often argued that Geoffrey used the accounts of either Riothamus or Magnus Maximus, two historical characters known to have led their forces to Gaul, as his inspiration for Arthur’s Gallic campaign. We will look at these next.
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