William Newburgh, composed the 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 indeed 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 criticises it. His preface shows his annoyance at ‘Geoffrey’s’ disregard for history in treating it in such an incredible way:319
“… 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 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.”
319Historia rerum Anglicarum, Bk I Chap, 1
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, (this belief bolstered by the fact that the JC prophecies had come to light) and the original Libellus Merlini as I have covered had been tampered with. Henry had squewed the meaning of the original prophecies 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 the prophecies of Merlin corroborate the phoney and incorrect 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 Brithonic 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 (in fact Gesta Britonum) 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. Those early prophecies only went as far as predictions up to the fourth King while Stephen was alive. Yet it is difficult to see how Newburgh does not believe in the character of Merlin and yet accepts 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 or deny 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 the trace of a real ‘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 updated 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 ‘Geoffrey’ had passed his expiration date in 1154-5. 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 to where its records were stored 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.