Transmission and Transformation: rewriting medieval literary genres

 A postgraduate conference hosted by Cardiff University’s Medieval and Early Modern Research Initiative


Friday, May 5, John Percival Building






SESSION ONE     2.00-3.15   Religious and Linguistic Transformations

David Mason, ‘Miracle and Mechanisation: Romance Magic on Crusade’

Xoana Costa Rivas, ‘The Gloss to the Lindisfarne Gospels and the demise of Old English Strong Verbs’

Sheri Smith, ‘Susanna, Griselda and Custance, preserved through divine grace: Invoking the literary in the fifteenth-century poem, “Alas, quid eligam ignoro”‘

SESSION TWO   3.30-4.45    Literary and Historical Transformations  

Caitlin Coxon, ‘Philomela: From Ovid to Chaucer’

Victoria Shirley, ‘Brutus, Scota, and Albina: conceptions of time in three medieval origin stories’

Charli Pruce, ‘Omission, Quotation, and Transformation: Writing and Rewriting the Becket Affair in the Chronicles of Roger of Hoveden’

SESSION THREE   5.00-6.15   Arthurian Transformations

Arthur Usher, ‘1660 and All That: Arthur in the Year of Restoration’

Olivia Mills, ‘Perceval and his kin – the making of a man: it’s a family affair’

Rebecca Newby, ‘Illusory and Abandoned Ends in Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances’

Wine Reception in 2.47


Caxton’s Prologues and Printing: The Christian Worthies

David Mason

William Caxton’s printing is diverse, but he is perhaps best known for his prose romances. The subject of this post are three prologues to the romances of the so-called ‘Chivalric’ or ‘Worthies’ series:[1] Godfrey of Bullogne (printed 1481), Charles the Grete (1485), and Le Morte Darthur (1485), as well as the non-romance Book of the Ordre of Chyualry (1481).[2]

Caxton personally translated many of the prose romances he printed, including Godfrey of Bullogne and Charles the Grete, working meticulously and word by word.[3] Each was accompanied by short prologues and epilogues, offering insights into the motivation behind his work and the audience he intends to address. This post explores Caxton’s use of the Nine Worthies motif in the prologues of the ‘Chivalric’ or ‘Worthies’ romances, through which he groups the texts thematically, and aligns his printing with an established literary motif of the late Middle Ages.

Literature of the Nine Worthies

The Nine Worthies is a motif common to late medieval literature: nine heroic individuals from history and legend who are grouped together in a sort of pantheon of the greats. They can be divided into three groups of three, in a system popularised (though not devised) by Jacques de Longuyon in his c.1310 Les Vœx du Paon.[4] These are:

The Pagan Worthies:hans_burgkmair_d-_a-_drei_heidnische_helden

Hector, King of Troy
Alexander the Great
Julius Caesar

The Jewish Worthies:

Joshua of Israel
David, King of Israel
Judas Maccabeus

The Christian Worthies:

King Arthur
Charles the Great
Godfrey, King of Jerusalem

Each figure was the subject – collectively and individually – of a great deal of literary and artistic production in the late medieval period. Israel Gollancz’s appendices to his 1897 edition of The Parliament of the Thre Ages provide a numerous examples of medieval texts that showcase the literary popularity of this motif – two extracts from which are transcribed below:[5]

Men ȝernen iestes for to here,
And romaunce rede in dyuerse manere;
Of Alisaunder þe conqueroure,
Of Julius Cæsar þe emperoure, […]
Of King Arthour þat was so riche
Was noon in his tyme him liche; […]
How Kyng Charles & rouland fauȝt
With Sarazines nolde þei neuer be sauȝt…

(From the Anonymous Cursor Mundi (C11), ll.1-16)

The eldest was Alexandere, that alle the erthe lowtteded;
The tother Ector of Troye, the cheualrous gume;
The thirde Iulyus Cesare, that geant was holdene,
In iche jorne jentille, a-juggede with lords;
The ferthe was sir Iudas, a justere fulle nobille,
The maysterfulle Makabee, the myghttyeste of strenghes;
The fifth was Iosue, that joly mane of armes,
That in Ierusalem oste fulle myche joye lymppede.
The sextet was Dauid the dere, demyd with kynges…

(From Huchowne’s “Morte Arthure” (c.1380), the Interpretation of Arthur’s Dream, ll.3406-3446)

Both examples highlight some of the most typical descriptive features of late medieval depictions of the Worthies, which typically extol their martial deeds and great conquests. Alexander is the ‘conqueroure’ of all the world; Judas Maccabeus is the ‘myghttyeste of strenghes’ as a commander; Godfrey becomes King of Jerusalem after his success in the First Crusade.

Of the nine, Caxton’s ‘Worthies’ series details the lives of just three of the heroic individuals: the Christian figures of Arthur, Charles and Godfrey. Caxton’s printed translations are prose versions of the verse romances that proved popular at the Court of Burgundy during his own stay there in the mid-fifteenth century.[6] His mercantile and political connections meant that a significant portion of his working life was spent at the court of Philip the Good of Burgundy, where he had an intimate access to the libraries and social circles of the upper echelons.

Not only was the literature that Caxton selected for printing heavily influenced by Burgundian vogue, but so too was his printing style: it was the custom of the Burgundian court to write prologues and epilogues. Caxton’s influence in these prologues, which go some way to elucidate the connections between the ‘Worthies’ texts, have been recognised as being jointly-influenced by the dedications of the French texts he translated and those that appeared in Lydgate’s poetic works.[7] The particular style of Burgundian prologues emphasised the positive, didactic aspects of chivalry, and this didacticism is present in the prologues of the Worthies series;[8] Caxton prints, he repeatedly suggests, so that these great deeds might be emulated. Furthermore, we can read in the links between these prologues an intention that the texts should be read together, under the motif of the Nine Worthies.

Godfrey of Bullognecaxton

The first of these ‘Worthies’ texts is Godfrey of Bullogne, printed in 1481.[9] The prologue gives a detailed description of each of the Worthies, and focuses particularly on their deeds. The extent of this description puts Caxton’s work in line with the previous literary iterations of the motif:

Accordyng to that we fynde wreton in holy scripture of many noble historyes, which were here ouer long to reherce. But in especial of thre noble and moost worthy of alle other, that is to wytte, fyrst of duc Iosue, that noble prynce / whiche ladde and conduyted the Childeren of Israhel, the chosen people of God, oute of deserte in to the londe of promyssyon, the Londe flowynge Mylke and hony. Secondly, of Dauyd the Kynge and holy Prophete…

Caxton continues as such for each of the Worthies, eventually arriving at Godfrey himself:

Henne as for the thyrd of the Cristen prynces, taken, reputed and renommed for to be egal emong thyse worthy & best that euer were, I mene the noble Godefroy of Boloyne […] whos noble hystorye I late fonde in a booke of ffrenssh, al alonge of his noble actes, valyaunces, prowesses / and accomplysshement of his hye empryses.

Deed and ‘accomplysshement’ takes pride of place, and Caxton suggests that these actions should prove an example for all of his readers. The Christian Worthies are given particularly great emphasis as men of legend, potentially as indication of Caxton’s intent to print on both Arthur and Charles in the coming years. Arthur is not only ‘kyng of the brytons’, but was the ‘fyrst founder of the round table’; Charles is likewise noted to have performed ‘noble actes and conquestes’ that have inspired many ‘large volumes’, the likes of which Caxton would translate and print only four years hence

Malory’s Morte Darthur

The second of the ‘Worthies’ romances is Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, printed by Caxton in July of 1485.[10] As with his translations, Caxton accompanies his edition with a lengthy prologue that begins with reference to the Worthies:

For it is notoyrly knowen thorugh the unyversal world that there been nine worthy and the best that ever were, that is to wete, thre Paynyms, thre Jewes, and thre Crysten men.

Specifically, he mentions the repeated demands to print Malory’s text that he has received – which he says has prompted his continuation of the Worthies motif.[11] While we cannot accept his claims at face value, his discussion in the prologue indicates that he prints Le Morte Darthur because he is obliged:

 …many noble and dyvers gentylmen of thys royame of Englond camen and demaunded me many and oftymes wherefore that I have not do made and enprynte the noble hystorye of the Saynt Greal and of the moost renomed Crysten kyng, fyrst and chyef of the thre best Crysten, and worthy, Kyng Arthur, whyche ought moost to be remembred emonge us Englysshe men tofore al other Crysten kynges.

The sayd noble jentylmen instantly requyred me t’emprynte th’ystorye of the sayd noble kyng and conquerour Kyng Arthur […] affermyng that I ought rather t’enprynte his actes and noble feates than of Godefroye of Boloyne or ony of the other eyght…

The passages are in direct reference to his 1481 work, a feigned dismay that he has mis-ordered his Worthies and removed the English King Arthur from his rightful place at the top. The initial passage is followed by a clear listing of the Worthies, along with a justification that the Pagan heroes are acceptable as men of legend as they were ‘tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst’. Presumably, he suggests, no Pagan man can be held to the same standard as Christian man after the coming of Christ. The insinuation is hardly surprising; the Morte, is the only of the three texts in this set where the Worthy in question does not spend the majority of their time on crusade against Pagan foes.

Charles the Grete

Finally, we reach Charles the Grete, which can be precisely dated from Caxton’s final lines of the epilogue, stating that it was ‘enprynted the first day of decembre’ of 1485, roughly five months after the Morte.[12] More interesting though is that Caxton ‘fynysshed in the reducyng of hit in to englysshe’ on the 17th June – the point at which he was working on printing the Morte. Once again, Caxton claims that popular demand provides the reason for his printing:

I haue been excyted of the venerable man messier henry bolomyer, chanonne of Lausanne, for to reduce for his playsyr somme hystoryes as wel in latyn & in romaunce as in other facion wryton, that is to say of the ryght puyssaunt, vertuous, and noble charles the grete…

However, shortly afterwards, the motive is twisted. Whilst still referring to the demands of his readership, Caxton makes mention of the Worthies series. Just as he has printed the works of Arthur and translated those of Godfrey:

 Thenne for as moche I late had fynysshed in enprynte the book of the noble & vyctoryous kyng Arthur, fyrst of the thre most noble & worthy of crysten kynges, and also tofore had reduced into englisshe the noble hystorye & lyf of Godfrey of boloyn kyng of Iherusalem, last of the said iij worthy, Somme persones of noble estate and degree haue desyred me to reduce thystorye and lyf of the noble and crysten prynce Charles the grete, kyng of fraunce & emperour of Rome, the second of the thre worthy…

The prologue to Charles the Grete, in this sense, is the most obscure of the three prologues; it does not follow trend Caxton has set of explaining the complete structure of the Nine Worthies, referring only to the Christian three. Perhaps, by this point, Caxton believes his readership has sufficient knowledge to make the connection. The link is not hidden, as he refers to Charles as ‘the second of the thre worthy’, but nor is it made explicitly clear in this prologue who these Worthies are. There is no mention of nine, no reference to the full pantheon, to the Pagans or the Jews, only the ‘thre most noble & worthy of crysten kynges’.

Caxton’s Worthies

Referring to these texts as a ‘Worthies’ series is a title we apply retrospectively, but not without reason. The evidence exists in Caxton’s own prologues to suggest that his intention was always that Godfrey of Bullogne, Charles the Grete, and his printing of Malory’s Morte Darthur be thematically linked and read as such. In using the motif as a linking factor, Caxton does not tread new ground. Many of the poetic works such as the Cursor Mundi treat the Worthies as a group, described and revered within a single text. Caxton prints each of his Worthies individually, but weaves throughout his own comments on the works a commonality that binds the three texts as one.

Of the remaining six, Caxton is remarkably quiet. He makes little mention of either the Pagan or Jewish worthies, save for his comments in the prologue to Malory’s Morte Darthur that they ‘were ‘tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst’. Caxton’s judgements echo through the prologues, of these three texts and of many of his other prose romances. Many of these prologues show a considerably greater enthusiasm for religious war than can be reasonably explored in this post. Caxton’s allots a significant space in his prologue to Godfrey of Bullogne for direct comparison between the Saracen threat of the Godfrey’s crusade and the Ottoman threat that is ‘moche more nowe than were in his dayes’.

The prologues provide the clearest indication we could hope for of the intentions behind Caxton’s choice of texts to translate and print, even if we cannot discern the truth in his claims of patronage. Caxton adopts the motif of the Nine Worthies in his printing, but redirects focus from the entire pantheon onto the Christian three most relevant to his readership and printing interests.


  • William Caxton, Godeffroy of Boloyne, ed. Mary Noyes Colvin, EETS ES 64 (London: Trübner, 1893)
  • William Caxton, The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University, [1880] 1967)
  • William Caxton, The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, ed. Alfred T. P. Byles, EETS SS 2 (London: Oxford University, 1971)
  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. P. J. C. Field (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013)

 For further reference:

  • Blake, N. F., Caxton and His World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969) 
  • Blake, N. F., Caxton’s Own Prose (London: Andre Deutsch, 1973)
  • Bornstein, D., ‘William Caxton’s Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England’, English Studies, 57 (1976), 1-10.
  • Cooper, H., The English Romance in Time (Oxford: University Press, 2004).
  • Dickson, D., ‘The Nine Unworthies’, in Medieval Literature and Civilization, ed. D. A. Pearsall and R. A. Waldron (London: Athlone, 1969), pp.228-32. 
  • Goodman, J. R., ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-85’, in Studies in Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), pp.257-71.



[1] William Kuskin, ‘Caxton’s Worthies Series’, ELH, 66:3 (1999), 511-551; J. R. Goodman, ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-85’, in Studies in Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), pp.257-71.

[2] The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry is regarded as part of the ‘Chivalric’ series, but it is not a ‘Worthies’ text like the romances. Still one of Caxton’s own translations, from the work of thirteenth-century French writer, Ramon Llull, it is addressed not as popular fiction but as specifically for those noble gentlemen who intend to enter the Order of Chivalry. See Caxton’s Epilogue to The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, ed. Alfred T. P. Byles, EETS SS 2 (London: Oxford University, 1971).

[3] See ‘Introduction’ by Sidney J. H. Herrtage, in Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University Press, [1880] 1967), p. vii.

[4] Bruce Dickins, ‘The Nine Unworthies’, in Medieval Literature and Civilization, ed. Pearsall and Waldron (London: Athlone, 1969), 228-32.

[5] The following examples are transcribed from: The Parlement of the Thre Ages, ed. Israel Gollancz (London: Oxford University, 1897). The text is available on at < > and the relevant appendix begins on p.119. A number of later texts considering the Nine Worthies, largely from C15-C18, are also freely available online on the Early English Books Online database.

[6] See: Diane Bornstein, ‘William Caxton’s Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England’, English Studies, 57 (1976), 1-10.

[7] N. F. Blake, Caxton and His World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969), pp.152-63.

[8] Bornstein, ‘Caxton’s Chivalric Romances’, p.6.

[9] Quotations from Godfrey are taken from Caxton’s prologue, transcribed in the EETS edition: William Caxton, Godeffroy of Boloyne, ed. Mary Noyes Colvin, EETS ES 64 (London: Trübner, 1893), pp.1-5.

[10] Quotations from the Morte are taken from P. J. C. Field’s 2013 edition of the text and paratexts: William Caxton, ‘Prologue to Le Morte Darthur’, in: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. P. J. C. Field (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013), vol. II, pp.854-7.

[11] Kuskin, ‘Caxton’s Worthies Series’, p.512.

[12] Quotations from Charles are taken Caxton’s prologue in the EETS edition: William Caxton, The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University, [1880] 1967).

David Mason is a doctoral candidate in medieval English literature, based at the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University. His work is funded by the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW-DTP). David’s thesis examines the English prose romances printed between 1473 and 1534 and the means by which these texts represent crusade, conversion, and the Eastern ‘other’. He can be found on twitter @d_s_mason


The auctoritas of Geoffrey of Monmouth

Vicky Shirley

This is a revised version of a paper given at the International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 2015


In his Anglica Historia (1534), Polydore Vergil published his scathing comments about Geoffrey of Monmouth, which subsequently ignited a debate over the veracity of the Historia regum Britanniae.[1] Quoting the twelfth-century historian, William of Newburgh, he writes that

there hathe appeared a writer in owre time which, to purse these defaultes of Brittains, feininge of them thinges to be laughed at, hathe extolled them above the nobleness of Romains and Macedonians, enhauncinge them with moste impudent lyeing. This man is cauled Geffray, surnamed Arthure, bie cause that oute of the olde lesings of Brittons, being somewhat augmented bie him, he hathe recited manie things of this King Arthure, taking unto him both the coloure of Latin speech and the honest pretext of an Historie.[2]

Vergil believed the Historia to be largely fictitious: he regarded Brutus to be an invention of the author, and he also suggested that Geoffrey’s portrait of Arthur had been highly embellished. British historians and antiquarians, such as John Leland, John Prise, and Humphrey Llwyd, were not receptive to the Anglica Historia, and they rushed to defend Geoffrey.

Yet Polydore Vergil’s objections about the Historia regum Britanniae were not new. In the twelfth century, Gerald of Wales and – most famously – William of Newburgh had their doubts about the reliability of Geoffrey’s work. Vergil, then, was merely continuing a tradition of skepticism about the Historia that had been popular since the twelfth century, and so his comments were not, necessarily, the product of Renaissance humanist doubt. This short post will consider how medieval and early modern commentators on the Historia regum Britanniae used their scholarly arguments to explore ideas of authority and authorship; in particular, it focuses on how William of Newburgh and John Leland used their evaluative historiographical practices to influence the reputation of Geoffrey of Monmouth.


William of NewburghWilliam of Newburgh

Geoffrey’s most profound early critic was William of Newburgh. His skepticism of the Historia regum Britanniane is well documented in his Historia rerum Anglicarum (‘The History of English Affairs’, c. 1198), a history of the Anglo-Norman kings from William I to Richard I, which focuses in particular on the civil unrest in the reign of King Stephen. In this text, William includes a vicious attack on Geoffrey and the Historia, and the prologue to his text begins with a treatise on history and truth. He upholds Gildas and Bede as the most esteemed writers of ‘British’ history, particularly as they were committed to revealing the truth about the Britons, but he laments that

in our own day a writer [scriptor] of the opposite tendency has emerged. To atone for these faults of the Britons he weaves a laughable [ridicula] web of fiction [figmenta] about them, with shameless vainglory extolling them far above the virtue of the Macedonians and the Romans. This man is called Geoffrey and bears the soubriquet Arthur, because he has taken up the stories about Arthur from the old fictitious [figmentis] accounts of the Britons, has added to them himself, and by embellishing them in the Latin tongue he has cloaked them with the honourable title of history.[3] (I.3)

In this passage, William’s main objection to the Historia is its basis in fiction [figemnta], rather than fact, and he complains that such an unreliable work has been produced in Latin, the language of authority. The contrast between fact and fiction demonstrates the unreliability of Geoffrey’s work, especially since the deeds of Arthur in the Historia have been over exaggerated. William insists that here is no justification for such ‘wanton and shameless lying’ (I.5), and dismisses Geoffrey as a mediocre historian who has ‘not learned the truth about events’ (I.5).

William’s prologue continues with a brief descriptive of the Saxon invasion by Hengist, and he lists the English kings that ruled after him, including Ethelbert, Aethelfrith, Edwin, and Oswald. According to William, these are historically accurate [historicam veritatem] events as they are accounted for in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica. William then uses Bede’s account to disprove Geoffrey’s version of events, and he claims that

it is clear that Geoffrey’s entire narration about Arthur, his successors, and his predecessors after Vortigern, was invented partly by himself and partly by others. The motive was either an uncontrolled passion for lying, or secondly a desire to please the Britons, most of whom are considered to be so barbaric that they are said to be still awaiting the future coming of Arthur being unwitting to entertain the fact of his death.  (I.9).

William’s juxtaposition of these accounts is clearly designed to assert the authority of Bede, rather than Geoffrey. Nevertheless, his assertion that created the Historia ‘partly by himself’, suggests that William also regarded Geoffrey as an auctor who was distinguished from scriptors, compilators, and commentators by their ability to invent their own work.[4] Technically, of course, Geoffrey only fulfills the category of scriptor as he only presents himself as a translator of the ‘British book’, which he claims was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. By acknowledging that some of the content of the Historia regum Britanniae was unique – even it was unaccounted for – Geoffrey’s principal critic is also his most important bestower of auctoritas.

After comparing Geoffrey with Bede, William casts his final judgment over the veracity of the Historia. He interrogates Geoffrey’s account of Arthur’s reign, particularly his foreign conquests, and he remarks

how could the historians of old, who took immense pains to omit from their writings nothing worthy of mention, and who are known to have recorded even modest events, have passed over in silence this man beyond compare and his achievements so notably beyond measure? How, I ask, have they suppressed in silence one more notable than Alexander the Great – this Arthur, monarch of the Britons, and his deeds – or Merlin, prophet of the Britons, one equal to Isaiah, and his utterances? […]  So since the historians of old have made not even the slightest mention of these persons, clearly all that Geoffrey has published in his writer about Arthur and Merlin has been invented by liars to feed the curiosity of those less wise. (I.14)


Here, William’s process of evaluation is framed through a series of complex rhetorical questions and juxtapositions focusing on Geoffrey and the ‘historians of old’. The rhetorical questions are designed to reinforce the authority of Gildas and Bede (even if they are not directly mentioned by name), and they imply that it would be unreasonable to doubt the reliability of two writers who recorded every detail of events. William entirely discredits Geoffrey’s attempt to fill the lacuna in insular history, and his conclusion that the stories of Arthur and Merlin Historia must be an invention, especially since they cannot be confirmed by any of the ancient historians, appears to be perfectly valid.


John Leland

The critical attitudes to Geoffrey’s Historia regum Britanniae began to change in the sixteenth century. The English antiquarian John Leland objected to Vergil’s claim that the Historia was an unreliable source, and in his De uiris Illustribus (‘Of Famous Men’, first completed 1535-6 and revised 1543-6), Leland offered a defence of Geoffrey, whom he placed alongside various other writers of ‘British’ history, ranging from the first Druids to Robert Widow. The account in De uiris Illustribus can be considered to be the first biography of Geoffrey, who is described as a man who ‘took great pleasure in reading ancient history’ and who ‘also delighted in scholarly intercourse’.[5] Leland situates Geoffrey within the clerical and academic circles of his time, and he is upheld as model of learning and authority. He praises him for his dedication to ‘British’ history as ‘he stands alone in having rescued a great part of Britain’s antiquity [Britannicae antiquitatis] well and truly from destruction through a diligence [diligentia] which is beyond all praise’ (Leland, p. 308-9). Leland presents Geoffrey as a translator, rather than an author, of his own work, and he writes that

220px-John_Lelandhe openly declares that he performed the task [officio] only of an interpreter [interpretis]; in other words, he translated a British history, written in the British language, and brought to him by Walter Map, the archdeacon of Oxford, into Latin. (Leland, p. 310-11)

This remark is essentially an apology for the number of inventions that can be found in the Historia, and it is also designed to counteract the comments of Geoffrey’s critics, who credited him with fabricating many of the events in his work. According to Leland, then, Geoffrey had a limited amount of creative agency, and he simply acted as a cultural mediator by transmitting an ancient account of the ‘British’ past to his twelfth-century readers.

Leland’s biography of Geoffrey includes a lengthy scholarly attack on Polydore Vergil. Leland complains that the Italian historian

launches a frenzied attack on Geoffrey, in order to undermine Geoffrey’s authority [autoritatem] and to accumulate weight and force as well as credibility [ueritatem] for his own empty inanities. Then, for much of the earlier part of his history, this most impudent fellow is forced to follow the writer whom he has just torn to pieces with so many harsh words. But one should surely forgive this impertinence when there was practically no other authority [autorem] he could have followed. (p. 310-11)

Here, Leland asserts that Vergil is a hypocrite for discrediting Geoffrey, and then using his account to form the basis of the record of insular history in the Anglica Historia. Leland’s comments also imply that ‘English’ history, from the Saxon period through the Normans to the Plantagenet kings, and the current Tudor monarchy, depends upon early ‘British’ history for its authenticity. Indeed, during the fifteenth century, the idea of cultural inheritance between England and Wales was being more explicitly acknowledged, especially as Henry VII had used his descent from Cadwallader, the last king of the Britons, to legitimate his claim to the throne. According to Leland, then, the Historia still had political currency, and he consistently emphasises the authority of Geoffrey, the ‘good author’, in order to expose Vergil, the ‘foreigner’, as the unreliable fraud.

In De uiris Illustribus, Leland also includes an assessment of Vergil’s sources that he used in the Anglica Historia. Vergil’s account of early insular history relied heavily on Tacitus’ Agricola (c. 98) and Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico (c. 58-49 BCE), both of which had grown in popularity during the Early Modern period. For Vergil, these Latin Caesar and Tacitus were more authoritative than Gildas and Bede, who lived several centuries later than the period they were writing about. Leland, however, remarks that

none of them [the Romans], as far as I know, wrote anything worth mentioning before Caesar. Besides, not everything that Caesar wrote – however much the Dunce [Polydore Vergil] makes of his statements – seems to me to have proceeded from an oracle; the same applies to many other things about the Britons which were later handed down to posterity by Latin authors. (Leland, pp. 310-13)

This assessment of Caesar is also a judgment of Polydore Vergil. Leland implies that it was unreasonable for Vergil to use Roman – and therefore biased – history in order to counteract Geoffrey’s version of ‘British’ history. Moreover, Leland also disregards the authority of Gildas and Bede, especially since the authorship of De Excidio Britanniae was subject to question after its publication in 1525, and the Historia Ecclesiastica included very little information on early ‘British’ history prior to the Saxon conquest. Leland’s detailed evaluation of his these sources interrogates the comparative methodology that Geoffrey’s critics used to disprove his account of insular history, and through his scholarly inquiry, Leland demonstrates that the Historia is the only real authority worth following.


The short biography of Geoffrey of Monmouth in De uirius Illustribus canonised the ‘British’ historian as an auctor – a term that, as A. J. Minnis points out, ‘denoted someone who was at once a writer and an authority, someone not merely to be read but also to be respected and believed’.[6] John Leland’s appraisal of Geoffrey challenged and disproved the objections of the critics of the Historia regum Britanniae, and his work later influenced the Welsh historians John Prise and Humphrey Llwyd, who both wrote defenses of Geoffrey in the latter half of the sixteenth century. These classically educated scholars and intellectuals held the Historia regum Britanniae in great esteem, rescuing its reputation from the likes of William of Newburgh and Polydore Vergil. Through their arguments, Leland, Prise, and Llwyd proved that Geoffrey’s authority and the veracity of his Historia was beyond all doubt.




[1] This debate has been previously explored by James P. Carley, who viewed the antagonism between the two historians as prefiguring twentieth-century scholarship on the ‘historical Arthur’ that became increasingly popular among historians and archaeologists following the work of E. K Chambers and Leslie Alcock; see James P. Carley, ‘Polydore Vergil and John Leland on King Arthur: The Battle of the Books’, in King Arthur: A Casebook, ed. Edward Donald Kennedy (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 185-204.

[2] Polydore Vergil’s English History, from an early translation presented among the MSS. of The Royal Library in the British Museum. Volume 1. Containing the First Eight Books, comprising the period prior to the Norman Conquest, ed. Sir Henry Ellis (London: Printed for the Camden Society, by John Bowyer Nichols and Son, Parliament Street, MDCCCXLVI), p. 29. All further references to Vergil’s Anglia Historia are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[3] William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1988), p. 29. All further references to William’s Historia rerum Anglicarum are to this edition and are given in the text.

[4] On the definitions of the auctor, scriptor, commentator, and compiler, see A. J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London: Scolar Press, 1984), p. 94.

[5] John Leland, De uiris Illustribus, ed. and trans. James P. Carley (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies and Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2010), p. 321. All further reference to Leland’s De uiris Illustribus are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text. It should be noted that Leland’s length discussion on Polydore Vergil and King Arthur were later insertions, and the entry on Geoffrey of Monmouth in the first version of De uirius Illustribus was purely concerned with the writer in question.

[6] A. J. Minnis, The Medieval Theory of Authorship, p. 10.


Vicky Shirley is a doctoral candidate in medieval literature, at the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University. Her thesis analyses the reception and rewritings of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae in Latin, Welsh, English and Scottish chronicles. Vicky also runs the MEMORI Reading Group – details for which can be found here: