"British" History in the Fifteenth Century: Medieval people read history for many of the same reasons we read history today. They read history for its instructive value and for the way it offered examples of right and wrong conduct. They read history for entertainment, and they read history to satisfy their curiosity about the origins of their country and their families.
For people in fifteenth century England, the story of their country's founding was the stuff of legend, closely related both to classical literature and to Bible stories. England, they believed, was founded by Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas. After the fall of Troy, Brutus defeated the Greek king Pandrasus, married his daughter, and then wandered across the face of Europe, eventually settling on the shores of
Albion, where the Britons' long and noble history included defeat of the Romans and the exploits of the legendary King Arthur.
This entertaining blend of history, literature, and wishful thinking received one of its most skillful renderings from Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain (ca. 1138-1139) was accepted by most people as true from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. A medieval "best-seller", it was translated from the Latin and summarized into English, Welsh, and Anglo-Norman and survives in many manuscript editions. It also formed the basis of many later medieval "best-sellers" such as Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon and the Brut Chronicles.
By the middle of the fifteenth century the Brut Chronicle had become firmly entrenched as a combination of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History and genealogical updates by various continuators. In its double row of "British" kings the Edward IV Roll lists all the kings mentioned in Geoffrey's History, with with the exception of a small and obscure group who are summarized in one box rather than listed generation by generation.
- William Caxton, The Description of Britain. A modern rendering by Marie Collins of Caxton's updated edition of the Polychronicon. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.
- Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain. There are several inexpensive editions of this work in print; because it is widely studied, it can often be found in used bookstores.
- Antonia Gransden, Historical Writing in England. Volume I, c. 550-c.1307; Volume II, c. 1307 to the early Sixteenth Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974 and 1976.
- Antonia Gransden, Legends, Tradition and History in Medieval England. London, Rio Grande: Hambledon Press, 1992.
- Anne E. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs. "History: Its Reading and Making," in Richard III's Books: Ideals and Reality in the Life and Library of a Medieval Prince. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1997.
Additional web link: Arthurian passages from Geoffrey of Monmouth's
History of the Kings of Britain