Who Was Geoffrey of Monmouth? The Man Who Made Arthur and Merlin

Geoffrey of Monmouth is credited with producing some of the best-known versions of King Arthur and his knights. Who was he?

Jan 25, 2024By Elizabeth Morgan, BA History w/ Tudor concentration
who was geoffrey of monmouth

 

Geoffrey of Monmouth remains an elusive and mysterious figure from the Medieval era. Rarely has so little been known about a man who contributed so much to the recorded history of Britain.

 

Let us take a moment to explore the life and works of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and attempt to discover what it was that influenced him to bring to life some of the most significant characters from British folklore. By collecting what information we can from our most reliable sources, we may build a firmer picture of Arthur, Merlin, and the man who made them. 

 

Geoffrey Of Monmouth: Get To Know The Man Himself 

ballards of bravery
Sketch from Ballads of Bravery, Source: Ballards of Bravery, by George Melville, Baker, 1877, online at the Internet Archive

 

Everyone has heard of the legendry King Arthur. Everyone has heard of his magical accomplice, Merlin the Sorcerer. Everyone has also heard of the beautiful but scandalous Queen Guinevere and of the charming Sir Lancelot who captured her heart.

 

Everyone has heard of the sword in the stone; of the Knights of the Round Table; of Uther Pendragon; of Morgan le Fay; of the Lady of the Lake. But who has heard of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the man who helped these enduring figures and enchanting tales to become as famous as they are today? It is largely thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth that King Arthur is still one of the most popular literary characters of all time.

 

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Without such a prolific chronicler as Geoffrey of Monmouth, there would be no Arthur, no Guinevere, no Merlin, and no Camelot. Stories of the imaginary world we have grown to know and love might never have been passed down to us. In fact, some scholars even go as far as to say that Geoffrey of Monmouth invented these characters and tales himself, with nothing more than his own imagination to inspire him.

 

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Michael Cronin as Geoffrey of Monmouth in Merlin, 2008, Source: IMDb

 

Thanks to his ancient publications, Geoffrey of Monmouth is often mentioned in the same breath as many other historians, chroniclers, and churchmen of the Medieval era. Adam of Usk, William of Malmesbury, Gerald of Wales, and Walter of Oxford are just a few of the names that immediately spring to mind.

 

But what made Geoffrey of Monmouth so special that he should be esteemed more highly than his contemporaries, despite the fact that practically nothing is known about his life? Who exactly was this talented man, that he possessed both the creativity required to concoct such stories and the dedication required to sit down at his desk and put pen to paper?

 

The modern historian may question further; was Geoffrey of Monmouth really from Monmouth, or did he merely live there for a short time? Was he even Welsh, at all? Did he have personal relationships and connections with the characters he claimed to be genuine historical figures, or were they purely fragments of his vivid imaginings? Were his writings intended as historical records of real events, or as fanciful legends to entertain and inspire?

 

Who Was Geoffrey Of Monmouth And What Made Him Special?

geoffrey of monmouth statue
Statue of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Source: Visitmonmouthshire.com

 

There are many facts to be discovered regarding the life of Geoffrey of Monmouth, although there is much confusion over the validity of each individual detail. Although there has been a lot of dispute between historians over which claims have substance and which have no historical evidence, Geoffrey of Monmouth is still popularly remembered in many different ways.

 

He was very likely a Welshman; he was a man of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. He was a cleric. He was a great scholar. He was likely to have been fluent in English, Welsh, and Latin; he was almost certain to have spent much time on his skills in conversation and translation. He was a historian. He was a chronicler. He was, quite possibly, a Monk of the Benedictine Order. He was also a Canon of Saint George’s College in Oxford, and a little later he was Bishop of Saint Asaph.

 

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Arms of the Diocese of Asaph, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Geoffrey of Monmouth was, and still is, one of the most important figures in the development of British historiography. We can tell by his proven abilities that he was a man who meant to make a success of his life. He was someone who had a variety of wonderful stories to tell, and who worked unceasingly to tell them.

 

To this day, Geoffrey of Monmouth is best remembered for his three major works. They were: The Historia Regum Britannie (The History of the Kings of Britain), Prophetiae Merlin (The Prophecies of Merlin), and finally Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin).

 

Monmouth: Picture of a Town 

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Monnow Bridge, Monmouth, by John Arthur Evans, later 18th-early 19th centuries, Source: ArtUK.org

 

Monmouth. Anyone living in Wales will be familiar with the name of this idyllic place. Presently, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is the very picture of a thriving and historic countryside town. Monmouth is pleasantly situated, for beside the town center the River Monnow joins the River Wye on the English-Welsh border. Monmouth lies thirty miles northeast of the Welsh Capital of Cardiff, and just under one-hundred-and-fifty miles from London.

 

The word Monmouth is an English contraction of the phrase Monnow-Mouth, and references the River Monnow which flows through the town. The Welsh name for the river Monnow is Mynwy, which translates loosely as fast-flowing. In accordance, Monmouth was originally known to the Welsh as Abermynwy (Mouth of the Monnow).

 

By the year of 1536, however, the town was officially recognized as the abbreviated name of Monmouth. It was also during this year that Monmouth became a county-town in its own right. Monmouth is still well-known and well-loved for its connections to many figures from British history; not only Geoffrey of Monmouth, but also King Henry V (who was born at Monmouth Castle and went on to win the Battle of Agincourt in 1415), Charles Rolls (whose ancestral home was in Monmouth and who co-founded Rolls-Royce), and King Charles I (who gave an unofficial tour of Monmouthshire during the English Civil War).

 

Monmouth is also home to some of the most significant sites in Wales, including the Monnow Bridge (the only remaining Medieval bridge in Britain with its original gate-tower still standing), Monmouth Benedictine Priory (originally built in 1075 and home to Geoffrey of Monmouth), and Saint Thomas the Martyr Church (originally built in 1180 and including a twelfth-century Norman Chancel).

 

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Monmouth Flag, Source: The Flag Institue

 

The occasional visit to the town of Monmouth is essential for all local history lovers, not only for its associations with the figures and buildings listed above but also because it was named one of the top ten towns in Britain by the Council for British Archaeology. Even back during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Monmouth was renowned for its profound history and stunning scenery. So famous did Monmouth become that it attracted wealthy clientele from all over Britain.

 

Monmouth quickly became a popular center for visitors who wished to undertake something called The Wye Tour; an excursion by boat throughout the scenic Wye Valley. The tour passed through not only Monmouth but also Ross-on-Wye, Tintern, and Chepstow.

 

Poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, and Robert Southby, as well as the painter J.M.W Turner, are among those known to have visited the area in this way. These days, an extremely popular heritage trail can be taken around the town. The walk takes tourists to twenty four sites, all of which hold great historical significance, and many of which relate to Geoffrey of Monmouth himself.

 

A Picture of Geoffrey’s Monmouth 

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Map of Monmouthshire, by John Speed, 1610, Source: Livinglevels.org

 

It is shortly before the Norman Conquest that Geoffrey of Monmouth makes his first appearance in our history books. He was likely to have been born sometime between the years of 1090 and 1100, during the reign of either King William II or King Henry I.

 

A popular theory holds that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s father arrived in Britain after fighting for William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. Whatever the exact year of his birth may have been, the fact remains that by the time Geoffrey had arrived on the scene in Monmouth in the late eleventh or early twelfth century, the town was already an ancient one, having been inhabited for many thousands of years.

 

So ancient was the town, in fact, that a neolithic dwelling was once present on the land that would become Monmouth. Therefore, it is thought that the first human life could have settled there up to twelve thousand years ago. Later, approximately five thousand years ago and forty centuries before Geoffrey of Monmouth was born, the same land was home to a Bronze-Age boat-building community. However, the first recorded settlment at Monmouth was the small, Roman Fort of Blestium. This fort was connected by Roman-built roads to two important towns; Glevum (Gloucester) and Isca Augusta (Caerleon).

 

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Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The proximity of Monmouth to Caerleon is significant, for it was Geoffrey of Monmouth who named it the Court of King Arthur. Of course, the question of whether or not Geoffrey of Monmouth was truly from Monmouth still remains, and the authenticity of his Welsh heritage is frequently questioned. When considering his true nationality, we must remember that there is absolutely no evidence to confirm that he was Welsh, or that he was Norman.

 

However, we do know that he referred to himself in his work as Galfridus Monemuntenis, which indicates a desire to associate himself with the town of Monmouth. It is therefore rumored that he was born there or, at the very least, lived there for a large portion of his life, probably at the Benedictine Priory of Monmouth.

 

Descriptions of Monmouth town, as it appeared during the year of 1086, have survived in the Domesday Book of King William I. In this particular year, shortly after the time when Geoffrey of Monmouth would have been present in the town, Monmouth possessed an extremely small population.

 

The lands and resources present in Monmouth at the time when the Domesday Book was written included twelve plough-teams to work on the ploughland, three mills and fifteen notable households, all of which gave employment to servants. Monmouth has grown significantly since then, for it now has a population of ten thousand.

 

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The Death of King Arthur, by James Archer, 1860, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Whether or not he was born in Monmouth, and whether or not he ever visited the nearby town of Caerleon, Geoffrey of Monmouth certainly wished to express his love for the area to his readers. He even gave a beautiful description of Caerleon for us to enjoy.

 

He claimed Caerleon to be “a delightful spot in Glamorgan on the River Usk. For the noble river I have named flows along it on one side, upon which the Kings and Princes who would be coming from overseas could be carried by ship. But on the other side,” Geoffrey of Monmouth continued, “protected by meadows and woods, it was remarkable for Royal Palaces, so that it imitated Rome in the golden roofs.”

 

Many other chroniclers and authors have echoed the idea of King Arthur’s Court being held at Caerleon. For example, during the year 1188, Gerald of Wales confirmed that “the Roman ambassadors here received their audience at the Court of the great King Arthur.” 

 

It was not until a few decades later, thanks to the French poet Chretien de Troyes, that the Court of King Arthur was held in a fictional land called Camelot.  Several centuries later, it was revealed that Alfred Tennyson had lodged at The Hanbury Arms in Caerleon as he wrote his famous work, Morte d’Arthur, more commonly known as The Death of Arthur. 

 

The Work of Geoffrey of Monmouth: Factual or Fanciful?

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Manuscript of the Historia Brittonum, Source: The British Library

 

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote three major works during his lifetime. The earliest of these works was The Prophecies of Merlin. It was originally written sometime during the year 1130 and contains a number of writings that Geoffrey attributed to the wizard Merlin.

 

However, it is Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae, that undoubtedly provokes the greatest amount of twenty-first-century dispute.  Geoffrey of Monmouth began this particular chronicle with what he would have considered to be an essential revelation. He clearly stated; “I have not been able to discover anything at all on the Kings who lived here before the Incarnation of Christ, or indeed about Arthur and all the others who followed on. Yet the deeds of these men were such that they deserve to be praised for all time.”

 

Also in his dedication, Geoffrey of Monmouth made it clear that he believed all the information within his book was both true and accurate. He claimed that his writings were nothing more than a direct translation of another book; no embellishments or enhancements included.

 

According to him, Historia Regum Britanniae was an updated version of “an ancient book in the British language that told in orderly fashion the deeds of all the Kings of Britain.” The original book was given to him by his friend and colleague; Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford.

 

For the most part, modern-day historians are unanimous in dismissing these claims of accuracy. Although Historia Regum Britanniae was considered by some as a factual retelling of events, and although in some areas it was given credence well into the sixteenth century, it is now thought by most to hold almost no historical value at all.

 

15th century historia regum britanniae
Vortigern and Ambrose watch two Dragons fight, from the Historia Regnum Britanniae, 15th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Even during the year 1190, many scholars were skeptical. William of Newburgh spoke against the declarations made by Geoffrey of Monmouth. He wrote that “it is quite something that everything this man wrote about Arthur and his successors, or indeed about his predecessors from Vortigern and onwards, was made up, partly by himself and partly by others.”

 

It must be noted that not all skeptics were critics. A.G Rigg (1937-2019), praised Geoffrey of Monmouth for publicizing his own, personal take on British history. He commented that “historians such as Gildas or Henry of Huntingdon imposed moral patterns on their material, usually of guilt or retribution or at least of good and evil.” He continued, “but Geoffrey, in creating his own material, has brought the mysterious into harmony with nature, with no reference to Christian morality.”

 

Would Geoffrey of Monmouth have known that his works contained false information? Or did he genuinely believe that he had taken down an accurate record of past events? What we can be certain of is that he claimed his work was factual, whether he truly believed it to be factual or not.

 

The question of whether he truly believed in the contents of his work, or whether he thought there was something to be gained in claiming his stories to be true, is left for us to answer for ourselves. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s final work, The Life of Merlin, was written around 1150, just a few years before his death. The Life of Merlin is a poem that tells many stories of Arthurian legend and most importantly gives an account of King Arthur’s death and final journey to Avalon.

 

The Geoffrey Of Monmouth Tapestry

geoffrey of monmouth tapestry
Geoffrey of Monmouth Tapestry, photo by Blubellam, 2013, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

During the year of 2000, nine centuries after his death, a wall-hanging was commissioned by the people of Monmouth to commemorate the life of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Monmouth Benedictine Priory.

 

This enormous task was taken on by a small army of dedicated craftspeople; just fourteen talented volunteers. The research and design took six months to complete, and after a combined total of just over 2,750 hours, the project was finally completed in May of 2003.

 

The tapestry now hangs on the first floor of the Priory in a room quite fittingly entitled The Geoffrey Room. This room was believed to have belonged to Geoffrey of Monmouth himself while he lived at the Priory. There, the story of Geoffrey of Monmouth is displayed beautifully, having been skilfully brought back to life with the use of wool and embroidered linen.

 

The wall-hanging consists of three panels. The first, on the left, shows the crowning of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere at Caerleon. The central panel depicts Geoffrey of Monmouth as he writes his chronicles. In this depiction, he is dressed in the black habit of the Benedictine Order. The panel on the right depicts another of Geoffrey’s figures, King Vortigern, as he listens to the stories of Merlin the Sorcerer. The River Monnow, one of Monmouth’s most famous features, can be seen running through each of the panels.

 

The Death and Legacy of Geoffrey of Monmouth

geoffrey of monmouth at desk
Geoffrey of Monmouth at Desk, Source: Scribd.com

 

Geoffrey of Monmouth is popularly believed to have had the misfortune of dying at Christmastime. Many history enthusiasts like to imagine that he breathed his last either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but in reality, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s death could just as easily have occurred on any day of the year.

 

According to records, Geoffrey of Monmouth was still Bishop of Saint Asaph on Christmas Day of 1154, but had been succeeded in the office by Christmas Eve of 1555. The chosen successor, who went only by the name Richard, had obviously accepted the Bishopric on the event of Geoffrey’s death. Therefore, Geoffrey’s demise and burial are almost certain to have taken place between these times.

 

Just like many notable figures of his era, Geoffrey is believed to have died of old age, (sixty years would have been considered more than adequate for a lifetime), but the true cause of death has never been determined. Although he has been gone almost nine-hundred years, reminders of Geoffrey’s origins are still scattered throughout the town of Monmouth with remarkable density.

 

Just one example of the sites to be seen in Monmouth is the Geoffrey of Monmouth window, which leads to the aforementioned Geoffrey Room at the Benedictine Priory. This sumptuous oriel window has been described as the only recognisable surviving medieval feature of the Priory, and can be seen clearly from the outside by passersby.

 

On viewing this window on a cold morning in the Welsh countryside, one may easily bring to mind the picture of Geoffrey of Monmouth at work in his study. He would be warmly wrapped in furs, huddled before a small fire, bending over his desk, a concentrated expression on his face, a scratching quill in his hand and a pot of ink at his side.

 

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Photo of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s window, by W.A. Call, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Physically he would be present in Monmouth Priory, but mentally, he would be present in Caerleon, or Camelot. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s general obscurity outside Wales does not lessen his vast contribution to our recorded history.

 

So important was his work that Arthurian stories are now categorized as either pre-Galfridian or post-Galfridian, depending on whether or not they were influenced by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Vita Merlini, contained within it seven different manuscripts, and are all now cared for by the British Library in London, which is also home to other fascinating works such as the Magna Carta.

 

Of course, the tales of Arthur and Merlin have been retold countless times throughout the centuries since his death, but it should not be forgotten that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s accounts were the first. Therefore, when we consider the dazzling characters and delightful tales he penned, it is only fitting that Geoffrey of Monmouth should be remembered as the man who made them.

Author Image

By Elizabeth MorganBA History w/ Tudor concentrationElizabeth is a historian, writer, and student with a passionate interest in the Tudor era. She also enjoys religious history, mythology, and Renaissance art. Recently she has studied King Henry VIII at Oxford University and history at the Open University and the University of Roehampton. She has also gained two Certificates (King Henry VIII & The Tudors) and a History Diploma (The Tudors). Elizabeth lives in Wales, United Kingdom, and can often be found exploring its many castles, cathedrals, and churches. She regularly writes about her trips to Museums and Heritage sites. Much of her research is dedicated to Cardinal Wolsey. She is the Founder of The Cardinal Wolsey Society, writes daily articles, and publishes its monthly newsletter.