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  • Title: Kings of Britain
  • Author: Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • Translators: Aaron Thompson, J. A. Giles
  • Editor: Michael Best

  • Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Editor: Michael Best
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    Kings of Britain


    0.1Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the twelfth century, recorded the first known instance of the Lear story. In his version Leir is more circumspect than in Shakespeare. Rather than giving all to his daughters he reserves half the kingdom until his death ("half the island at present, but after his death, the inheritance of the whole monarchy of Britain" (paragraph 1). Monmouth's version also includes the original relatively happy ending, where Lear is restored to his throne, but dies soon after, and after reigning for five years Cordelia (Cordeilla) is defeated by her sisters' sons. This excerpt also includes the narrative of the later King Gorboduc (Gorbogudo) and his sons Ferrex and Porrex, on which the tragedy of Gorboduc, also included in this edition, is based.

    This extract is taken, with permission, from the In Parenthesies website, maintained by Ross Arthur: (In parentheses Publications, Medieval Latin Series, Cambridge, Ontario: 1999). Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) was written c. 1136; this translation, by Aaron Thompson with revisions by J. A. Giles, was originally published in 1842.

    1Book 2, Chapter 11.

    Leir the son of Bladud, having no son, divides his kingdom among his daughters.

    After this unhappy fate of Bladud, Leir, his son, was advanced to the throne, and nobly governed his country sixty years. He built upon the river Soar a city, called in the British tongue Kaerleir, in the Saxon, Leircestre. He was without male issue, but had three daughters, whose names were Gonorilla, Regan, and Cordeilla, of whom he was dotingly fond, but especially of his youngest, Cordeilla. When he began to grow old he had thoughts of dividing his kingdom among them and of bestowing them on such husbands as were fit to be advanced to the government with them. But to make trial who was worthy to have the best part of his kingdom, he went to each of them to ask which of them loved him most. The question being proposed, Gonorilla, the eldest, made answer that she called heaven to witness she loved him more than her own soul. The father replied, "Since you have preferred my declining age before your own life, I will marry you, my dearest daughter, to whomsoever you shall make choice of, and give with you the third part of my kingdom." Then Regan, the second daughter, willing, after the example of her sister, to prevail upon her father's good nature, answered with an oath that she could not otherwise express her thoughts but that she loved him above all creatures. The credulous father upon this made her the same promise that he did to her eldest sister, that is, the choice of a husband, with the third part of his kingdom. But Cordeilla, the youngest, understanding how easily he was satisfied with the flattering expressions of her sisters, was desirous to make trial of his affection after a different manner. "My, father," said she, "is there any daughter that can love her father more than duty requires? In my opinion, whoever pretends to it must disguise her real sentiments under the veil of flattery. I have always loved you as a father, nor do I yet depart from my purposed duty; and if you insist to have something more extorted from me, hear now the greatness of my affection, which I always bear you, and take this for a short answer to all your questions; look how much you have, so much is your value, and so much do I love you." The father, supposing that she spoke this out of the abundance of her heart, was highly provoked, and immediately replied, "Since you have so far despised my old age as not to think me worthy the love that your sisters express for me, you shall have from me the like regard, and shall be excluded from any share with your sisters in my kingdom. Notwithstanding, I do not say but that since you are my daughter, I will marry you to some foreigner, if fortune offers you any such husband; but will never, I do assure you, make it my business to procure so honourable a match for you as for your sisters; because, though I have hitherto loved you more than them, you have in requital thought me less worthy of your affection than they." And, without further delay, after consultation with his nobility, he bestowed his two other daughters upon the dukes of Cornwall and Albania, with half the island at present, but after his death, the inheritance of the whole monarchy of Britain.

    It happened after this, that Aganippus, king of the Franks, having heard of the fame of Cordeilla's beauty, forthwith sent his ambassadors to the king to demand her in marriage. The father, retaining yet his anger towards her, made answer, "That he was very willing to bestow his daughter, but without either money or territories because he had already given away his kingdom with all his treasure to his eldest daughters, Gonorilla and Regan." When this was told Aganippus, he, being very much in love with the lady, sent again to king Leir, to tell him, "That he had money and territories enough, as he possessed the third part of Gaul, and desired no more than his daughter only, that he might have heirs by her." At last the match was concluded; Cordeilla was sent to Gaul, and married to Aganippus.

    Book 2, Chapter 12

    Leir, finding the ingratitude of his two eldest daughters, betakes himself to his youngest, Cordeilla, in Gaul.

    A long time after this, when Leir came to be infirm through old age, the two dukes on whom he had bestowed Britain with his two daughters, fostered an insurrection against him, and deprived him of his kingdom and of all regal authority, which he had hitherto exercised with great power and glory. At length, by mutual agreement, Maglaunus, Duke of Albania, one of his sons-in-law, was to allow him a maintenance at his own house, together with sixty soldiers, who were to be kept for state. After two years' stay with his son-in-law, his daughter Gonorilla grudged the number of his men, who began to upbraid the ministers of the court with their scanty allowance; and, having spoken to her husband about it, she gave orders that the numbers of her father's followers should be reduced to thirty, and the rest discharged. The father, resenting this treatment, left Maglaunus, and went to Henuinus, Duke of Cornwall, to whom he had married his daughter Regan. Here he met with an honourable reception, but before the year was at an end, a quarrel happened between the two families, which raised Regan's indignation; so that she commanded her father to discharge all his attendants but five, and to be contented with their service. This second affliction was insupportable to him, and made him return again to his former daughter, with hopes that the misery of his condition might move in her some sentiments of filial piety, and that he, with his family, might find a subsistence with her. But she, not forgetting her resentment, swore by the gods he should not stay with her, unless he would dismiss his retinue, and be contented with the attendance of one man; and with bitter reproaches she told him how ill his desire of vainglorious pomp suited his age and poverty. When he found that she was by no means to be prevailed upon, he was at last forced to comply, and, dismissing the, rest, to take up with one man only. But by this time he began to reflect more sensibly with himself upon the grandeur from which he had fallen and the miserable state to which he was now reduced, and to enter upon thoughts of going beyond sea to his youngest daughter. Yet he doubted whether he should be able to move her commiseration, because (as was related above) he had treated her so unworthily. However, disdaining to bear any longer such base usage, he took ship for Gaul. In his passage he observed he had only the third place given him among the princes that were with him in the ship, at which, with deep sighs and tears, he burst forth into the following complaint.

    "O irreversible decrees of the Fates, that never swerve from your stated course! Why did you ever advance me to an unstable felicity, since the punishment of lost happiness is greater than the sense of present misery? The remembrance of the time when vast numbers of men obsequiously attended me in the taking the cities and wasting the enemy's countries, more deeply pierces my heart than the view of my present calamity, which has exposed me to the derision of those who were formerly prostrate at my feet. Oh! the enmity of fortune! Shall I ever again see the day when I may be able to reward those according to their deserts who have forsaken me in my distress? How true was thy answer, Cordeilla, when I asked thee concerning thy love to me, 'As much as you have, so much is your value, and so much do I love you.' While I had anything to give they valued me, being friends, not to me, but to my gifts. They loved me then, but they loved my gifts much more; when my gifts ceased, my friends vanished. But with what face shall I presume to see you my dearest daughter, since in my anger I married you upon worse terms than your sisters, who, after all the mighty favours they have received from me, suffer me to be in banishment and poverty?"

    5As he was lamenting his condition in these and the like expressions, he arrived at Karitia, where his daughter was, and waited before the city while he sent a messenger to inform her of the misery he was fallen into, and to desire her relief for a father who suffered both hunger and nakedness. Cordeilla was startled at the news and wept bitterly, and with tears asked how many men her father had with him. The messenger answered, he had none but one man, who had been his armour-bearer, and was staying with him without the town. Then she took what money she thought might be sufficient, and gave it to the messenger, with orders to carry her father to another city, and there give out that he was sick, and to provide for him bathing, clothes, and all other nourishment. She likewise gave orders that he should take into his service forty men, well clothed and accoutred, and that when all things were thus prepared he should notify his arrival to king Aganippus and his daughter. The messenger, quickly returning, carried Leir to another city, and there kept him concealed, till he had done every thing that Cordeilla had commanded.

    Book 2, Chapter 13

    He is very honourably received by Cordeilla and the king of Gaul.

    As soon as he was provided with his royal apparel, ornaments, and retinue, he sent word to Aganippus and his daughter that he was driven out of his kingdom of Britain by his sons-in-law, and was come to them to procure their assistance for recovering his dominions. Upon which, they, attended with their chief ministers of state and the nobility of the kingdom, went out to meet him, and received him honourably, and gave into his management the whole power of Gaul till such time as he should be restored to his former dignity.

    Book 2, Chapter 14

    Leir, being restored to the kingdom by the help of his son-in-law and Cordeilla, dies.

    In the meantime Aganippus sent officers over all Gaul to raise an army, to restore his father-in-law to his kingdom of Britain. Which done, Leir returned to Britain with his son and daughter and the forces which they had raised, where he fought with his sons-in-law and routed them. Having thus reduced the whole kingdom to his power, he died the third year after. Aganippus also died; and Cordeilla, obtaining the government of the kingdom, buried her father in a certain vault, which she ordered to be made for him under the river Sore in Leicester, and which had been built originally under the ground to the honour of the god Janus. And here all the workmen of the city upon the anniversary solemnity of that festival used to begin their yearly labours.

    Book 2, Chapter 15.

    Cordeilla, being imprisoned, kills herself. Margan, aspiring to the whole kingdom, is killed by Cunedagius.

    After a peaceful possession of the government for five years, Cordeilla began to meet with disturbances from the two sons of her sisters, being both young men of great spirit, whereof one, named Margan, was born to Maglaunus, and the other, named Cunedagius, to Henuinus. These, after the death of their fathers, succeeding them in their dukedoms, were incensed to see Britain subject to a woman, and raised forces in order to raise a rebellion against the queen; nor would they desist from hostilities, till, after a general waste of her countries and several battles fought, they at last took her and put her in prison, where for grief at the loss of her kingdom she killed herself. After this they divided the island between them; of which the part that reaches from the north side of the Humber to Caithness fell to Margan, the other part from the same river westward was Cunedagius's share. At the end of two years, some restless spirits that took pleasure in the troubles of the nation had access to Margan, and inspired him with vain conceits by representing to him how mean and disgraceful it was for him not to govern the whole island, which was his due by right of birth. Stirred up with these and the like suggestions he marched with an army through Cunedagius's country, and began to burn all before him. The war thus breaking out, he was met by Cunedagius with all his forces, who attacked Margan, killing no small number of his men, and, putting him to flight, pursued him from one province to another, till at last he killed him in a town of Kambria, which since his death has been by the country people called Margan to this day. After the victory, Cunedagius gained the monarchy of the whole island, which he governed gloriously for three and thirty years. At this time flourished the prophets Isaiah and Hosea, and Rome was built upon the eleventh before the Kalends of May by the two brothers, Romulus and Remus.

    Book 2, Chapter 16

    The successors of Cunedagius in the kingdom. Ferrex is killed by his brother Porrex, in a dispute for the government.

    At last Cunedagius dying was succeeded by his son Rivallo, a fortunate youth, who diligently applied himself to the affairs of the government. In his time it rained blood three days together, and there fell vast swarms of flies, followed by a great mortality among the people. After him succeeded Gurgustius his son, after him Sisillius, after him Jago, the nephew of Gurgustius, after him Kinmarcus the son of Sisillius, after him Gorbogudo, who had two sons, Ferrex and Porrex.

    10When their father grew old they began to quarrel about the succession; but Porrex, who was the more ambitious of the two, formed a design of killing his brother by treachery, which the other discovering, escaped, and passed over into Gaul. There he procured aid from Suard, king of the Franks, with which he returned and made war upon his brother; coming to an engagement, Ferrex was killed and all his forces cut to pieces. When their mother, whose name was Widen, came to be informed of her son's death, she fell into a great rage, and conceived a mortal hatred against the survivor. For she had a greater affection for the deceased than for him, so that nothing less would appease her indignation for his death than her revenging it upon her surviving son. She took therefore her opportunity when he was asleep, fell upon him, and with the assistance of her women tore him to pieces. From that time a long civil war oppressed the people, and the island became divided under the power of five kings, who mutually harassed one another.