A History for England: Confusion between English and British History Goes Back a Long Way, as Alan MacColl Reveals

By MacColl, Alan | History Today, January 2006 | Go to article overview

A History for England: Confusion between English and British History Goes Back a Long Way, as Alan MacColl Reveals


MacColl, Alan, History Today


IN 1154 THE MONKS of Peterborough Abbey made the final entries in what was, so far as we know, the last active version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The main events they recorded were the death of King Stephen, the accession of Henry II, the death of their abbot, and the appointment of his successor. So ended a tradition that had begun when the historical records of the English people were brought together in the ninth century, during the reign of Alfred Great. It would be two hundred years before the nation's history was written in English again.

In the following year, 1155, the Norman poet Wace completed his Roman de Brut, a history of the Britons adapted from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin History of the Kings of Britain and written for presentation to Henry's queen, Eleanor. The contrast between the highly-wrought, almost wholly fictitious, courtly French verse 'romanz' and the bald English prose record of events could hardly be greater. Yet the fortunes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Geoffrey's British narrative were already linked by the time Wace wrote his poem, and would become inseparably connected in the centuries that followed.

Geoffrey's History had probably been completed by 1138, and attempts were soon made to incorporate its narrative into the history of England. The first surviving text in which this is actually done is Alfred of Beverley's Annales, a Latin history written before 1157. However, the poet Geffrei Gaimar had already rendered Geoffrey's text into French verse, shortly after its appearance. Gaimar's Estoire des Bretuns was the first part of an ambitious project setting out the history of Britain and England from the fabled Trojan origins of the British to the death of William Rufus in 1100. This first part has been lost, and we know of its existence only from its author's remarks at the end of the second part, his Estoire des Engleis, based on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In the four surviving manuscripts of Gaimar's poem, the place of his history of the Britons has been taken by Wace's Roman de Brut.

All these works are part of a surge of historical writing which had begun in the 1120s with the Latin prose histories of England, William of Malmesbury's History of the Kings of the English and Henry of Huntingdon's History of the English. In their different ways, all these works are addressed to readers who thought of themselves as English. The implication of William's title (the author's own, given in his dedication) is that all the king's subjects in England are 'English'. It would seem too that Gaimar's French-speaking readers had become English enough to regard the Anglo-Saxon past as their own. Fundamental to all these historical enterprises is a quest for continuity, and their authors showed a common concern to minimize the disruption of events like the Norman Conquest and 'the passage of dominion' from British to Saxon rule.

The new French-speaking English seem to have been fascinated by the history of ancient Britain. Wace's Roman de Brut itself was quite widely read in England. It also appears to have inspired imitators, and half a dozen French verse histories of Britain, in varying states of completion, have survived from the second half of the twelfth century. Moreover, Wace was the acknowledged source for a brief Anglo-Norman history of the kings of Britain whose earliest manuscripts date from the reign of Henry III (1216-72). This text was widely copied, and occurs as the prologue to a short history of the kings of England. Despite its brevity, the composite work is a significant development, as it is the first attempt to produce a comprehensive history of England in vernacular prose.

This brief history was one of the sources consulted by the anonymous author of the Anglo-Norman work known as the Prose Brut, in which the narratives of Wace and Gaimar are skilfully abbreviated and joined together, and supplemented by material from later chronicles to form a coherent and readable account of the history of England from the coming of Brutus (who supposedly fled Troy after its fall) to the death of Henry III. …

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