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16 - William of Malmesbury and the Britons

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 August 2018

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Summary

William of Malmesbury wrote his Gesta Regum ‘out of love for his homeland’ (‘propter patriae caritatem’). But what was William's patria? It was not England alone, as James Campbell has suggested – that English polity with clear territorial boundaries, formed of the united Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Rather, it was a far greater thing: the continuum of British, Roman, English and Norman history on the island of Britain. What he loved was the history of that island's people, including those who lived prior to the advent of the English kingdoms.

It was in many ways a challenging affection to sustain, because Britain's history of contest and conflict had tested the endurance of the island's peoples, their memory and their honour. William admired the Roman past, and he emulated its style and its attitudes towards history. He valued the continued legacy of the Roman past in Britain – the survival not only of Roman buildings, but also of Roman values and practices. He wanted to praise both the ancient Britons and the Romans in the Gesta Regum, but in doing so, he had to admit that the Romans decisively defeated the Britons. Or did he?

It was for love of his patria that William sought ‘to redeem the broken chain of our history’ (‘uoluntati fuit interruptam temporum seriem sarcire’). The word ‘sarcire’ is often rendered as ‘to mend’ or ‘to restore’, which can imply a routine or reconstructive task, not a creative one. But the word also means ‘to redeem’,5 and this was a central purpose of the Gesta Regum. William sought to redeem those people in Britain's distant past who, by many accounts – those of Bede, Gildas, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and even Caesar himself – surrendered without honour to the Romans, the Irish and the Picts, and the Germanic tribes.

William endeavoured to restore honour to the Britons in Britain's remote past by minimising their subjection to these foreign invaders. He appropriated Roman imperial claims to represent the Britons as a people of strength, pride and authority in their own right, not merely as inhabitants of an oppressed frontier province and victims of invasion. In this respect he shared a renewed interest in the British past with his contemporaries Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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