It has been confirmed that the ancient St George’s Chapel, the crypt of which is still standing, was where one of the earliest biographies of King Arthur was written. The chapel was knocked down in order to build the castle.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittanae, or The History of the Kings of Britain, is one of the first full biographies to be written about Arthur outside of Welsh literature. It also contains the first known version of the story of King Lear and his three daughters.
Geoffrey lived in Oxford from 1129 to 1151, writing the work in 1136, as his name appears on a number of royal charters in that period. He had a close connection with the canons of the chapel, dedicating his writings on the life of Merlin to one of them.
Michael Speight, general manager of Oxford Castle Unlocked, commented, “We’re excited to discover that the Legends of King Arthur were written while Geoffrey of Monmouth was based at St. George’s chapel within the castle. We always knew that Geoffrey would have been in the city during the period the book was written but had never taken the chance to investigate further to get confirmation until now.
“The stories obviously resonate widely with the general public and remain as popular today as they did when Geoffrey first wrote them, so we look forward to welcoming visitors to the castle to learn more. It’s always said that Oxford is all about the university so it’s interesting now to add another layer to the city’s fascinating story.”
In light of the finding, Oxford Castle Unlocked will now be introducing a Geoffrey of Monmouth character to act as tour guide to visitors.
This is the first time that Oxford has been linked with the literary development of Arthurian legend, sparking excitement in the academic community.
Dr Aisling Byrne, Research Fellow in Old and Middle English at Merton, commented, “If Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae had never been written, King Arthur would probably be little more than a shadowy figure alluded to in various early texts. The odd scholar might puzzle over his identity, but his name would mean little to most people today.”
Dr Byrne explains: “The background to Geoffrey’s work is rather mysterious, so placing the composition of the Historia at what is now Oxford Castle helps fill out our picture of things.”
She highlighted the Arthurian legend’s continued appeal, saying: “This discovery is exciting and the interest it is generating demonstrates how widespread fascination with Arthur, initiated by Geoffrey in the twelfth century, continues today. The Arthurian Legend is very much part of our culture, but we rarely tend to encounter the original medieval versions of the story.
“In its day the Historia was extraordinarily popular, and when you read this high-paced account of ambition, treachery, violence and magic you can see why.”
Amy Davis, who will be taking the English faculty’s course in medieval literature next year, was thrilled with the news, saying “In Oxford there is already an astonishing sense of history all around you, but to discover that one of my set texts for Medieval Literature was actually written here in Oxford is really exciting and just adds to the appeal of Oxford for studying medieval texts.”