Chapter 8
William of Newburgh
William Newburgh, wrote his Historia rerum Anglicarum or Historia de
rebus Anglicis, A History of English Affairs’. He is often regarded as a writer
of some critical acumen, in no small part because of his preface in which he
denounces Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Gesta Britonum for its ‘impudent
fabrications’. He makes the argument that Bede would have mentioned
Arthur if the Chivalric King Arthur had existed, and he points out Geoffrey’s
‘errors’, including the presence of Kingdoms and archbishops unknown to
history.
William of Newburgh’s work ends rather abruptly in 1198, when
presumably, he died in that year. But, he was at the height of his career
when the HRB blossomed in the years after 1155 and he ardently criticizes
it. His preface shows his annoyance at ‘Geoffrey’s’ disregard for history in
treating it in such an incredible way:
1
“... a writer in our times has started up
and invented the most ridiculous fictions concerning them (the Britons) ...
having given, in a Latin version, the fabulous exploits of Arthur (drawn from
the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own), and
endeavoured to dignify them with the name of authentic history; moreover, he
has unscrupulously promulgated the mendacious predictions of one Merlin,
as if they were genuine prophecies, corroborated by indubitable truth, to
which also he has himself considerably added during the process of
translating them into Latin... no one but a person ignorant of ancient
history, when he meets with that book which he calls the History of the
Britons, can for a moment doubt how impertinently and impudently he
falsifies in every respect... Since, therefore, the ancient historians make not the
slightest mention of these matters, it is plain that whatever this man
published of Arthur and of Merlin are mendacious fictions, invented to gratify
1
Historia rerum Anglicarum, Bk I Chap, 1
the curiosity of the undiscerning... Therefore, let Bede, of whose wisdom and
integrity none can doubt, possess our unbounded confidence, and let this
fabler, with his fictions, be instantly rejected by all.”
This attack was reason enough to kill off the fictitious ‘Geoffrey’, but
what it points out is that Chivalric Arthur and the Merlin character are an
invention. William Newburgh could not even refer to ‘Geoffrey by name
but as whatever this man. However, the sentence: to which also he has
himself considerably added during the process of translating them into Latin,
throws up a few questions.
The difference between what was an early release of prophecies c.1139-
43 and those found in the vulgate HRB c.1155 must have been the allusion
to which William thought ‘Geoffrey’ had expanded upon (hence the need
for the interpolation into Orderic). William believed there was an already
extant set of ancient prophecies, which, as I have covered, Henry squewed
to form the updated 1155 edition found in the Vulgate version of HRB. Yet
Newburgh is wise enough to realise that the Merlin character is not real: he
has unscrupulously promulgated the mendacious predictions of one Merlin,
as if they were genuine prophecies. What amazes me most is that because the
prophecies of Merlin corroborate the faux-history written in HRB, it is
obvious that whoever invented the prophecies must have invented the
contents of history in HRB. Yet even Newburgh or Gerald do not state this
fact overtly. Newburgh may have believed there was a brittonic set of
prophecies i.e. why he writes the process of translating them into Latin.
One could speculate; did Newburgh mean by ‘addition’…. the new
publication of Vita Merlini? To me this seems doubtful as he is referencing
the History of the Britons and the sense would more likely fit the earlier
set of prophecies in the Libellus Merlini which did not include references to
the latter part of the Anarchy or the rally of the Celts to rebellion and only
went as far as predictions up to the fourth King while Stephen was alive. Yet
it is difficult to see how he does not believe in the character of Merlin and
yet accept his prophecies were translated from the British tongue to Latin.
Robert de Chesney, the dedicatee of the VM died December 1166. When
did William Newburgh write his preface? Did Robert De Chesney ever see
the VM or was the dedication added subsequently? There are too many
scenarios to divulge and for little profit by doing so. It is obvious that Henry
Blois is using a standard format. Wait until someone is dead before
employing their name to back date the publication and no-one can
corroborate their patronage after their death. For this reason, in my
opinion, the Waleran dedication of Vulgate is post 1166 and probably the
same goes for Robert de Chesney with the VM. However, the VM could have
existed without dedication as the two Merlin’s were known as early as 1160.
What seems fairly certain, given the obvious ire shown by William
Newburgh, is that, William will have tried to locate Geoffrey to see if he
existed. It appears to me that Newburgh knew ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth’ was
a nom de plume by the time he wrote his preface, and refers to the author as
‘a writer’ and this man’. William is not going to add to the fraud by
broadening the exposure of a name for which no man can be found. Rather
than lending anymore credibility to the invention of ‘Geoffrey’, he
denounces the history and the prophecies as a pack of lies. One could
speculate that ‘in our times’ might mean that Newburgh suspected the
author was still alive when he wrote his preface.
Maybe William Newburgh from Bridlington in Yorkshire would not
know of the spurious signature additions of Galfridus Arthur in Oxford….
even if he had gone in pursuit of the ancient book to Oxford. If Newburgh
did ever find out that Geoffrey became a fictitious Bishop of Asaph, one
might affirm that he would have exposed that. However, it would have
made little difference, as ‘Geoffreyhad passed his expiration date in 1155.
Even these details of ‘Geoffrey’s’ death are derived from an unreliable
document which commentators have suspected was written by ‘Geoffrey’.
Henry Blois, as we covered, also oversaw the London bishopric for a time
and would have had access at a later date through acquaintances or
position. He would have been able to plant a false ‘profession’ of Geoffrey’s
and fake a record of ordination and consecration. Theobald of Bec died in
1161, ten years before Henry, so this particular fraud may not have been
carried out until then. It is impossible to search out the sequence of events.
However, Henry Blois does make one error which has led the scholastic
community to think that one of the Oxford charters is a fake. Henry Blois
added the name of his fictitious Gaufridus electus sancti Asaphi to a
document without paying attention to chronology regarding Walter’s
successor Robert Foliot, Archdeacon of Oxford.