British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Preface to the Historia Rerum Anglicarum
by William, Monk of Newburgh Priory, Yorkshire (c. 1198)

Virtually the entire preface to the "Historia Rerum Anglicarum" is given over to scathing criticism of Geoffrey of Monmouth, personally, and his "History of the Kings of Britain." William of Newburgh neither approved of Geoffrey's Briton-centric viewpoint, nor his embellishment of what William believed to be true history.

[1] The history of our English nation has been written by the venerable Bede, a priest and monk, who, the more readily to gain the object he had in view, commenced his narrative at a very remote period, though he only glanced, with cautious brevity, at the more prominent actions of the Britons, who are known to have been the aborigines of our island. The Britons, however, had before him a historian of their own, from whose work Bede has inserted an extract; this fact I observed some years since, when I accidentally discovered a copy of the work of Gildas. His history, however, is rarely to be found, for few persons care either to transcribe or possess it, his style being so coarse and unpolished; his impartiality, however, is strong in developing truth, for he never spares even his own countrymen; he touches lightly upon their good qualities, and laments their numerous bad ones: there can be no suspicion that the truth is disguised, when a Briton, speaking of Britons, declares, that they were neither courageous in war, nor faithful in peace.

[2] For the purpose of washing out those stains from the character of the Britons, a writer in our times has started up and invented the most ridiculous fictions concerning them, and with unblushing effrontery, extols them far above the Macedonians and Romans. He is called Geoffrey, surnamed Arthur, from having given, in a Latin version, the fabulous exploits of Arthur, drawn from the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own, and endeavored to dignify them with the name of authentic history; moreover, he has unscrupulously promulgated the mendacious predictions of one Merlin, as if they were genuine prophecies, corroborated by indubitable truth, to which also he has himself considerably added during the process of translating them into Latin. He further declares that this Merlin was the issue of a demon and woman, and, as participating in his father's nature, attributes to him the most exact and extensive knowledge of futurity; whereas, we are rightly taught, by reason and the holy scriptures, that devils, being excluded from the light of God, can never by meditation arrive at the cognizance of future events; though by the means of some types, more evident to them than to us, they may predict events to come rather by conjecture than by certain knowledge. Moreover, even in their conjectures, subtle though they be, they often deceive themselves as well as others. Nevertheless, they impose on the ignorant by their feigned divinations, and arrogate to themselves a prescience which, in truth, they do not possess. The fallacies of Merlin's prophecies are, indeed, evident in circumstances which are known to have transpired in the kingdom of England after the death of Geoffrey himself, who translated these follies from the British language, to which, as is truly believed, he added much from his own invention.

[3] Besides, he so accommodated his prophetic fancies, as he easily might do, to circumstances occurring previous to, or during, his own times, that they might obtain a suitable interpretation. Moreover, no one but a person ignorant of ancient history, when he meets with that book which he calls the History of the Britons, can for a moment doubt how impertinently and impudently he falsifies in every respect. For he only who has not learnt the truth of history indiscreetly believes the absurdity of fable. I omit this man's inventions concerning the exploits of the Britons previous to the government of Julius Caesar, as well as the fictions of others which he has recorded, as if they were authentic. I make no mention of his fulsome praise of the Britons, in defiance of the truth of history, from the time of Julius Caesar, when they came under the dominion of the Romans, to that of Honorius, when the Romans voluntarily retired from Britain, on account of the more urgent necessities of their own state.

[4] Indeed, the Britons, by the retreat of the Romans, becoming once more at their own disposal -- nay, left to themselves for their own destruction, and exposed to the depredation of the Picts and Scots -- are said to have had Vortigern for king, by whom the Saxons, or Angles, were invited over for the defense of the kingdom: they arrived in Britain under the conduct of Hengist, and repelled the irruptions of the barbarians for a time; but afterward, having discovered the fertility of the land, and the supineness of its inhabitants, they broke their treaty, and turned their arms against those by whom they bad been invited over, and confined the miserable remains of the people, now called the Welsh who had not been dispersed -- within inaccessible woods and mountains. The Saxons, moreover, had, in the course of succession, most valiant and powerful kings; among whom was Ethelberht, great-grandson of Hengist, who, having extended his empire from the Gallic ocean to the Humber, embraced the easy yoke of Christ at the preaching of Augustine. Alfred, too, king of Northumberland, subdued both the Britons and the Scots with excessive slaughter. Edwin, who succeeded Alfred, reigned at the same time over the Angles and Britons; Oswald, his successor, governed all the nations of Britain.

[5] Now, since it is evident that these facts are established with historical authenticity by the venerable Bede, it appears that whatever Geoffrey has written, subsequent to Vortigern, either of Arthur, or his successors, or predecessors, is a fiction, invented either by himself or by others, and promulgated either through an unchecked propensity to falsehood, or a desire to please the Britons, of whom vast numbers are said to be so stupid as to assert that Arthur is yet to come, and who cannot bear to hear of his death. Lastly, he makes Aurelius Ambrosius succeed to Vortigern (the Saxons whom he had sent for being conquered and expelled), and pretends that he governed all England superexcellently; he also mentions Utherpendragon, his brother, as his successor, whom, he pretends, reigned with equal power and glory, adding a vast deal from Merlin, out of his profuse addiction to lying. On the decease of Utherpendragon, he makes his son Arthur succeed to the kingdom of Britain -- the fourth in succession from Vortigern, in like manner as our Bede places Ethelberht, the patron of Augustine, fourth from Hengist in the government of the Angles. Therefore, the reign of Arthur, and the arrival of Augustine in England, ought to coincide.

[6] But how much plain historical truth outweighs concerted fiction may, in this particular, be perceived even by a purblind man through his mind's eye. Moreover, he depicts Arthur himself as great and powerful beyond all men, and as celebrated in his exploits as he chose to feign him. First, he makes him triumph, at pleasure, over Angles, Picts, and Scots; then, he subdues Ireland, the Orkneys, Gothland, Norway, Denmark, partly by war, partly by the single terror of his name. To these he adds Iceland, which, by some, is called the remotest Thule, in order that what a noble poet flatteringly said to the Roman Augustus, "The distant Thule shall confess thy sway," might apply to the British Arthur. Next, he makes him attack, and speedily triumph over, Gaul -- a nation which Julius Caesar, with infinite peril and labor, was scarcely able to subjugate in ten years -- as though the little finger of the British was more powerful than the loins of the mighty Caesar. After this, with numberless triumphs, he brings him back to England, where he celebrates his conquests with a splendid banquet with his subject-kings and princes, in the presence of the three archbishops of the Britons, that is London, Carleon, and York -- whereas, the Britons at that time never had an archbishop. Augustine, having received the pall from the Roman pontiff, was made the first archbishop in Britain; for the barbarous nations of Europe, though long since converted to the Christian faith, were content with bishops, and did not regard the prerogative of the pall. Lastly, the Irish, Norwegians, Danes, and Goths, though confessedly Christians, for a long while possessed only bishops, and had no archbishops until our own time.

[7] Next this fabler, to carry his Arthur to the highest summit, makes him declare war against the Romans, having, however, first vanquished a giant of surprising magnitude in single combat, though since the times of David we never read of giants. Then, with a wider license of fabrication, he brings all the kings of the world in league with the Romans against him; that is to say, the kings of Greece, Africa, Spain, Parthia, Media, Iturea, Libya, Egypt, Babylon, Bithynia, Phrygia, Syria, Boeotia, and Crete, and he relates that all of them were conquered by him in a single battle; whereas, even Alexander the Great, renowned throughout all ages, was engaged for twelve years in vanquishing only a few of the potentates of these mighty kingdoms. Indeed, he makes the little finger of his Arthur more powerful than the loins of Alexander the Great; more especially when, previous to the victory over so many kings, he introduces him relating to his comrades the subjugation of thirty kingdoms by his and their united efforts; whereas, in fact, this romancer will not find in the world so many kingdoms, in addition to those mentioned, which he had not yet subdued. Does he dream of another world possessing countless kingdoms, in which the circumstances he has related took place? Certainly, in our own orb no such events have happened. For how would the elder historians, who were ever anxious to omit nothing remarkable, and even recorded trivial circumstances, pass by unnoticed so incomparable a man, and such surpassing deeds? How could they, I repeat, by their silence, suppress Arthur, the British monarch (superior to Alexander the Great), and his deeds, or Merlin, the British prophet (the rival of Isaiah), and his prophecies? For what less in the knowledge of future events does he attribute to this Merlin than we do to Isaiah, except, indeed, that he durst not prefix to his productions, "Thus saith the Lord" and was ashamed to say, "Thus saith the Devil," though this had been best suited to a prophet the offspring of a demon.

[8] Since, therefore, the ancient historians make not the slightest mention of these matters, it is plain that whatever this man published of Arthur and of Merlin are mendacious fictions, invented to gratify the curiosity of the undiscerning. Moreover, it is to be noted that he subsequently relates that the same Arthur was mortally wounded in battle, and that, after having disposed of his kingdom he retired into the island of Avallon, according to the British fables, to be cured of his wounds; not daring, through fear of the Britons, to assert that he was dead -- he whom these truly silly Britons declare is still to come. Of the successors of Arthur he feigns, with similar effrontery, giving them the monarchy of Britain, even to the seventh generation, making those noble kings of the Angles (whom the venerable Bede declares to have been monarchs of Britain) their slaves and vassals.

[9] Therefore, let Bede, of whose wisdom and integrity none can doubt, possess our unbounded confidence, and let this fabler, with his fictions, be instantly rejected by all.

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