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Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Portrayal of the Arrival of Christianity in Britain: Fact or Fiction?

Decorated initials 'C'(umque) and 'K'(imbelinus) in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae. Photo courtesy British Library

Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Portrayal of the Arrival of Christianity in Britain: Fact or Fiction?

By Alison Andre

Reading Medieval Studies, Vol.19 (1993)

Decorated initials 'C'(umque) and 'K'(imbelinus) in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae. Photo courtesy British Library
Decorated initials ‘C'(umque) and ‘K'(imbelinus) in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae. Photo courtesy British Library

Introduction: William of Newborough described Geoffrey of Monmouth as ‘effrenta mentiendi libidine’ (that is, as an imposter writing from an inordinate love of lying). In more modem times, Geoffrey has fared little better in the hands of R.W. Hanning, who calls him ‘an unscrupulous fabricator of a legendary British past’. However, I would like to suggest that an open-minded approach to a reading of the Historia Regum Britanniae shows that Geoffrey does not entirely deserve his reputation. By examining his portrayal of the structure of the pagan church, the arrival of Christianity in Britain, and the subsequent progress of the Christian faith, I hope to go some way towards redeeming Geoffrey’s reputation, and suggest that the work does not entirely spring from his lively imagination. Instead, I maintain that, there is evidence not only that he has made use of source material, but that there is, in fact, some truth in what he has written.

Let us begin by briefly summarising what Geoffrey says on the arrival of Christianity in Britain. He describes the pagan church as it existed in Britain before the coming of Christianity with flamens presiding over territorial districts. These in turn were answerable to arch-flamens. He then goes on to discuss how Christianity was brought to Britain during the reign of King Lucius in the second century. According to Geoffrey, the Christian religion then flourished until the days of Asclepiodotus, when the Diocletian persecutions began. During this time churches were destroyed, copies of the Holy Scriptures were burnt in market places and priests were butchered. However, the heroism of the martyrs ensured that Christianity did not die out completely

Geoffrey mentions Christianity again when he talks of the Pelagian heresy and the way that the true faith was restored by Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre, and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, However progress is by no means smooth, and during the reign of Vortigem, the Saxons drive him out of his kingdom, lay waste the countryside and virtually destroy Christianity once more. Even after the church was restored by Aurelius, the faith was tainted by corruption, and Pope Gregory sent Augustine to Britain to preach Christianity to the Angles who had lapsed back into paganism.

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It has to be admitted that there are occasions when Geoffrey uses his descriptions of religion to reveal his own political sympathies. One example of this occurs earlier in the Historia, before the coming of Christianity, Geoffrey describes the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, and Antigonus and his comrade Anacletus are captured. Anacletus is persuaded by Brutus to act as a traitor and deceive his own countrymen. A.J.P. Tatlock points out in 1931 that this episode is a piece of political propaganda on Geoffrey’s part. Anacletus’ name is almost certainly an allusion to Petrus Petri Leonis, who came to England as Cardinal Legate in 1121 and visited the king in Wales, and the convent in Canterbury. He travelled in great pomp, gained a large amount of loot, and then left the country, having made promises to Canterbury that he could not keep. He was then elected pope and changed his name to Anacletus. Innocent II however, was elected by another group, and he was ultimately successful in gaining the papacy, so, by giving a traitor the name of Anacletus, Geoffrey is showing loyalty to the ‘right’ pope.

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