Geoffrey of Monmouth gained fame and notoriety for his History of the Kings of England which appeared by January 1138. His History interprets England as a mighty British empire before the invasion of the Saxons. In Geoffrey’s invention of events on the island of Britain, King Arthur rose against the Saxons, developed a Court which rivaled any in western Europe, and was at the point of conquering Rome when treachery back in Britain brought him home to his final battle. Prior to the History of the Kings of Britain, no storyteller had combined the traditions about King Arthur into a cohesive tale.
Little is known of Geoffrey: Signatures of Geoffrey the clerk, Geoffrey Arthur, Geoffrey magister, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Geoffrey Bishop of St. Asaph’s appear on fewer than ten existing writs. They span 1121 to 1154.
Several facts about Geoffrey can be gleaned from his writing. When he was in the midst of writing his History, he was asked by Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, to record the Prophesies of Merlin. Geoffrey complied; such prophecies were going around although he mostly created his own. A few years later Geoffrey incorporated the “Prophesies of Merlin” into the History, complaining in the prologue that Alexander had failed to reward him for his earlier efforts.
Prologues to copies of the History dedicate the work to Robert, Earl of Gloucester; Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Waleran, Count of Meulan; and, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Stephen, King of England.
Contemporary historians were hampered by the paucity of documents from Post Roman Britain. Geoffrey filled in king lists and stories from those centuries, claiming that he had a source unknown to others: a little book given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. Geoffrey concluded the History of the Kings of England at the point around 700 when further Anglo-Saxon history was documented, writing that that his contemporaries could continue recounting English from then. However, he warned them that without Walter’s little book they could not delve into the earlier events he had recounted.