The Grail Code 
The genesis of Arthur in Geoffrey

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History, Merlin is involved in Arthur’s very conception. That creates a strong link between the characters that Geoffrey doesn’t really develop as much as he might. (Later writers would more than make up for that missed opportunity.)

The story of Arthur’s genesis reads like one of those newspaper soap-opera summaries, with a bit of fantasy novel thrown in.

Merlin has predicted that the wicked Vortigern will die at the hands of the sons of Constantine, the legitimate heirs to the throne of Britain. And so he does: the elder son, Aurelius Ambrosius (Geoffrey’s name for Ambrosius Aurelianus), burns him up in his own tower. (Nennius tells a version of the same story, but in his version the fire came from heaven itself.)

Aurelius goes on to a glorious career of harrying Saxons, but eventually he falls dead from treacherous Saxon poison. His brother Uther succeeds him and looks set to continue his Saxon-harrying triumphs. But then he falls in love with Igerna, the wife of his vassal the Duke of Cornwall. Civil war results; the Duke locks Igerna safely away in his impenetrable castle of Tintagel.

Uther, pining away for love of Igerna, is advised to send for the prophet Merlin, who has a cunning plan. With certain remarkable drugs, Merlin makes Uther look exactly like the Duke of Cornwall. In his perfect disguise, Uther has no trouble simply walking straight into Tintagel, and then straight into Igerna’s bed. Arthur is conceived that night.

Meanwhile, at just about the moment Arthur is being conceived, the duke conveniently dies in battle. Uther, back to being Uther again, takes Tintagel; Igerna, who knows a good bargain when she sees it, marries him. Thus Arthur is raised as the legitimate son of Uther.

After that, Uther continues his glorious career of harrying Saxons for fifteen more years, until the Saxons finally get tired of being harried and poison him as they did his brother.

So Arthur comes to the throne at the age of fifteen, crowned by the Archbishop of the City of Legions. Everyone acclaims him, and he immediately picks up the Saxon-harrying mantle left him by his father and his uncle.

That’s the beginning of the story of Arthur in Geoffrey’s History. And since we’re looking for the historical Arthur, we’ve got to ask ourselves whether there’s any history at all in Geoffrey’s account.

I’ll admit up front that I’m going to do what every other historian does with Geoffrey of Monmouth: I’m going to latch onto what seems plausible to me and reject the rest as legend. But I’ll try to give you the reasons for my conclusions, so you can make up your own mind.

Let’s start with what we know. We know that Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus (Aurelius Ambrosius in Geoffrey) are real historical figures. Gildas tells us that Ambrosius came from a noble Roman family, and that his descendants were still ruling Britain, though they had not inherited Ambrosius’ virtue.

Geoffrey makes Aurelius Ambrosius the son of Constantine. Now, Constantine is an illustrious name in British history: Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor (at least if we don’t count Philip the Arab, who may have been a secret Christian) was in Britain when he was proclaimed Emperor. Constantine was also a common name among noble Britons, and Gildas scolds by name a certain tyrant Constantine who ruled in Gildas’ own day. It is quite possible that this Constantine was a descendant of Ambrosius, and that Constantine was a recurring family name in his line. So the idea that Constantine was Ambrosius’ father seems very plausible. I certainly can’t prove it, but it sounds like it might be real history.

In Geoffrey, Aurelius Ambrosius is succeeded by his brother Uther. This also sounds suspiciously like history. If you’re just making up a plausible story, kings are usually succeeded either by sons or by usurpers. So I’m inclined to accept Uther as a real character.

Wouldn’t it be tempting to say that we’ve discovered the real genealogy of Arthur? Uther was his father; the famous Ambrosius was his uncle, and his grandfather was named Constantine.

But I’m not willing to go that far. The story of Arthur’s conception is just too odd. Arthur’s father, the story tells us, was Uther, the legitimate king; but at the time of his conception Uther was indistinguishable from the Duke of Cornwall. It sounds just like the sort of story later legend would create to account for the fact that Arthur, who took over the rule of Britain, was not the son of Uther. I’m not willing to stand by that conclusion, either: I can only say that I don’t think Geoffrey gives us any reliable genealogy of Arthur.

So we’ll just have to see what else Geoffrey has to say about Arthur, and whether we can find any real history buried in it.

2 Responses to “The genesis of Arthur in Geoffrey”

  1. ellis bill Says:

    you have more info on this than anyone - truly amazing! I’m still tracing my family back if anyone has info of any Winn family members from High Wycombe get in touch!

  2. Garden Furniture Covers Says:

    Oh, superb description! I have no clue how you managed to write this’d take me days. Well worth it though, I’d suspect. Have you considered selling banners on your blog?

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