Myths and mysteries
During the sixteenth century, an understanding of Britain’s history prior to the arrival of the Romans in AD 55 depended on the speculation of medieval historians. Chief among these was Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose History of the Kings of Britain, dating from 1138–9, was one of the most successful accounts to be written.
According to Geoffrey, Britain owed its name to the Trojan prince, Brutus, who took over the country and expelled a race of giants. As the grandson of Aeneas, who supposedly founded Rome, the connection gave Britain a comparable foundation myth.
But in sixteenth-century Italy, much excavation of Roman sculpture and buildings had already taken place and Italians had a range of histories to consult about the past. It was the availability of these Roman histories in printed editions and their failure to mention a successful civilisation in Britain that led some scholars to question the myths of Brutus or of settlement by descendants of Noah’s son Japhet.
The last speculation is contained in a genealogical roll presented to Henry VI in 1455, tracing his descent from Adam and Eve via Noah. The roll was updated in 1665 to include the newly restored Charles II, demonstrating that the need to confirm dynastic continuity overrode such unproven claims. Others rejected the Roman accounts as presenting pre-Roman Britain in too barbaric a form, and despite the beginning of antiquarian research and activity, the propagation of myths continued well into the seventeenth century.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007: An Introduction, by Greg Harris.
Click here to download a PDF of this guide (1.3 MB)