Around 1120 a charter in Monmouth was signed by, among others, Geoffrey the scribe (Gaufridus scriba).
The signature of Geoffrey Arthur (Gaufridus Arturus) is found on five charters and deeds in Oxford between 1129 and 1150. One of them, a deed in 1139, Geoffrey signed as magister Gaufridus Arturus. Magister was a term for a teacher.
Copies of the History of the Kings of Britain (Historia regum Britanniae) name the author as Geoffrey of Monmouth (Galfridus Monemutensis) or Geoffrey Arthur of Monmouth (Galfridus Artur Monemutensis).
In 1151 Geoffrey signed charters as Geoffrey bishop-elect of St. Asaph’s (Gaufridus electus sancti Asaphi) and as Geoffrey bishop of St. Asaph’s (Gaufridus episcopus sancti Asaphi).
Being elected as a bishop meant Geoffrey had to become a priest. He was ordained on February 16th 1152 then was consecrated bishop of St. Asaph’s on February 22nd.
Geoffrey’s last surviving signature is on a major historical document: the Westminster Treaty which sealed the end of the English civil war called the Anarchy. The treaty settled that King Stephen would rule to his death, after which the crown would be passed to Henry, Duke of Anjou, the future Henry II.
Scholars have extrapolated parts of Geoffrey’s life from these signatures.
Geoffrey probably was born and grew up in Monmouth, a Welsh-English frontier town held by a Breton lord whose family had supported William the Conqueror.
Perhaps Geoffrey’s father was named Arthur. Some scholars claim that Arthur is a Breton name; the name Geoffrey is Breton. It was common during the years following the Conquest in 1066 for Breton and Norman and sometimes French knights to emigrate to Britain. Many of them married Anglo-Saxon women. Others, like Wihenoc, the Breton Lord of Monmouth, brought their wives with them.
Geoffrey could have studied Latin at the priory in Monmouth. He could have become a clerk which would explain his first known signature. If his parents had enough money or if he came to the attention of a well-off patron, a bright young clerk might be sent to the Chapel of St. George at Oxford Castle as a secular canon. That position would put him into contact with teachers, scholars, and churchmen. Most of his signatures are on documents also signed by Walter, the Archdeacon of St. George’s, as well as other canons of that Chapel.
Geoffrey’s superiors in Oxford were active in the affairs of the diocese of Lincoln. Lincoln was the largest diocese in England, and its Bishop was Alexander “the Magnificent.” Alexander loved grandeur and he was involved in the affairs of the state as well as the church. In addition, he was a patron of historians. Geoffrey dedicated his “Prophesies of Merlin” to Bishop Alexander of Lincoln.
It would be fitting to imagine that in his later years Geoffrey was elevated to Bishop of St. Asaph’s because of the great success of his writings. After all, the story of St. Asaph was tied to that of St. Kentigern who appeared in Geoffrey’s Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini).
The best source I’ve found for a total view of Geoffrey’s life and work is by Michael J. Curley. I used it for much of the information in this post.
Geoffrey of Monmouth by Michael J. Curley. 1994. Twayne Publishers, MacMillan Publishing Company, New York. Twayne’s English Author Series Number 509.
Trying to figure out who Geoffrey of Monmouth might have been like involves, for me at least, researching the past that he wrote about, understanding the cultures of the Welsh, British, Saxon, Norman peoples, exploring the greater events taking place in the 12th century Anglo-Norman world, discovering the people with whom he interacted, and to seek tidbits of what he would have seen and touched.
Researching Geoffrey is a lot like a run-on sentence.
The attached timeline is a beginning that is only organized by years and a couple of font colors. Feel free to look it over.
Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the “Prophesies of Merlin,” the History of the Kings of Britain, and “The Life of Merlin.”
“The Prophesies of Merlin” was distributed before it was incorporated into the History of the Kings of Britain. A copy of the History was in the monastery at Bec in Normandy in January 1138.
“The Life of Merlin” is the last work Geoffrey wrote.
I recommend the following edition of the History.
Geoffrey of Monmouth: the History of the Kings of Britain. Latin text edited by Michael D. Reeve. Translated by Neil Wright. 2007, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-84383-441-0
I use the following online version of “The Life of Merlin.”
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.
William of Malmesbury:
I am often led to wonder why such unhappiness should attach to the learned of our time, that in so great a number of scholars and students, pale with watching, scarcely one can obtain unqualified commendation for knowledge.
So much does ancient custom please those who would commend the learned,
and so little encouragement, though deserved, is given to new discoveries, however consistent with truth, that
scholars and students are anxious to grovel in the old track, and everything modern is contenmed; and therefore, as patronage alone can foster genius, when that is withheld, every exertion languishes.
[check translation; further edited by estowe]