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MerlinRedAndWhiteDragons

The boy Merlin shows King Vortigern that his castle is collapsing because a red and a white dragon are fighting underneath it. Illustration from a 15th-century manuscript of History of the Kings of Britain in Lambeth Palace, London.

History of the Kings of Britain (Latin: Historia Regum Britanniae or 'De gestis Britonum) is a book written in Latin around the year 1135 CE by the British writer Geoffrey of Monmouth. It is a largely fictitious work which has very little value as a work of history. However, it has enormous value as a work of medieval literature because it was the first literary treatment of the Arthurian legend and was initially responsible for making stories of King Arthur popular in England, France and other parts of Europe. Other stories contained within History of the Kings of Britain would also provide inspiration to later writers, including William Shakespeare.

Contents of the book

The events chronicled in History of the Kings of Britain span across a period of some two thousand years, from the first human inhabitants arriving in Britain to the Saxon invasion and the rule of the last British king.

Before King Arthur

Brutus of troy

16th century depiction of Brutus of Troy, the first King of Britain in Geoffrey's History.

The first events described in the book are a retelling of The Aeneid, describing how the Trojan Aeneas settles in Italy. The book goes on to describe how his great-grandson Brutus the Trojan is banished from Italy and led by the goddess Diana to settle in some islands in the western sea. Brutus names the islands Britain, after himself. He and his followers fight and defeat the giants who are the islands' only inhabitants at the time of their arrival.

The book contains the story of King Bladud who learns magic and dies while trying to fly, the brothers Bellinus and Brennius who attack the city of Rome before it becomes the center of a powerful empire and King Leir who divides his kingdom between his three daughters according to how much they say they love him. The Leir story is the earliest written version of the tale that would become Shakespeare's King Lear. It also has some similarities to the fairy tale "Cinderella".

History of the Kings of Britain describes how Cassibelanus (a genuine historical figure) prevents Julius Caesar from conquering Britain before going on to describe how the line of British kings continues under Roman rule. The story of Emperor Constantine I is told, Constantine is presented as being half-British and a king of Britain before he becomes emperor of Rome.

After the end of Roman rule, King Vortigern invites two Saxon brothers Hengist and Horsa to come and protect his kingdom. However, Hengist and Horsa turn against Vortigern and invite other Saxons to invade the kingdom. Merlin the magician helps Aurelius Ambrosius and his brother Uther Pendragon to defeat King Vortigern. He also helps Uther Pendragon to seduce the Lady Ygraine, leading to the birth of King Arthur.

King Arthur

History of the Kings (f.75.v) King Arthur

Image of King Arthur from a 15th-century Welsh manuscript of History of the Kings of Britain.

The rule of King Arthur takes up a large part of History of the Kings of Britain. Arthur's army crushes the Saxon invaders and completely stops them from being a threat. Arthur marries Guinevere, a beautiful woman of Roman descent, and establishes peace throughout his kingdom. Armed with the sword, which Geoffrey calls Caliburn not Excalibur, Arthur goes on to conquer most of the other kingdoms in Europe and become the most powerful man on the continent.

The jealous Roman Emperor Lucius demands that Britain pay tax to Rome once more. Arthur goes to Gaul (present day France), defeats Lucius in battle and becomes Emperor of Rome himself.

Arthur finds that during his absence, his nephew Mordred has taken over his kingdom and tried to take Guinevere as his bride. Arthur defeats Mordred in battle but is fatally wounded. He sails away to the isle of Avalon and leaves his cousin King Constantine III in charge of his kingdom.

After King Arthur

After King Arthur is gone, the Saxons become a danger once more. They gradually take over more and more of Britain until a voice from Heaven tells King Cadwallader that the Britons are not to rule the islands anymore. The Britons retreat into what is to become Wales and the Saxons become the ancestors of the English.

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