The Legendary Kings of Britain

The third significant element of myth-history included on the Canterbury Roll concerns the pre-Saxon British kingdom. Although genuine historical figures make an appearance, they do so in the context of a legendary ancient British history.

Sources

The line of mythical kings presented on the Canterbury Roll is largely influenced by chronicles of the time, including the popular Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Completed in the 12th century, the Historia traced the story of England from its founding to the Saxons. It incorporated fiction and history, and, while some contemporaries questioned its accuracy, it influenced British history for centuries. By the time the Canterbury Roll was produced, it provided much of the accepted version of early British history.

See below for some major mythical and historical characters from the Canterbury Roll that are recognizable today, including King Lear, Constantine the Great, and King Arthur.

King Lear of Britain

Lear of Britain is an example of one of the many pseudo-historical figures on the Canterbury Roll.

The story of King Lear and his daughters was made famous by Shakespeare's tragedy - however, the original tale itself is much older. The play, King Lear, offers a story that is very similar to the original legend as recounted in the earliest known written record by Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Interestingly, while Geoffrey's legend and the commentary on the Canterbury Roll agree that Queen Cordelia went on to reign for 5 years after Lear's death, she is not given a place on the central axis; her sister Regan is given that honour.

Click to open in new window

King Leyr (CRN193) & his 3 daughters: Gonarilla (CRN194), Regan (CRN197), & Cordelia (CRN196)

Constantine the Great

Constantine was a real historical figure, but his incorporation into the lineage of English kings is based on unverified claims. In British legend, the mother of Constantine the Great was Helena, daughter of King Coel of Colchester. In the 12th century Henry of Huntingdon referred to Helena as a British princess, and Geoffrey of Monmouth expanded on this idea. However, there is little evidence to support this story. Claims of Helena's origin as a British princess are unfounded, and it is understood that Constantius, Constantine's father, had actually divorced Helena before he went to Britannia as Caesar.

The inclusion of the first Christian Roman Emperor in the lineage of British kings does, however, provide a sense of prestige and distinction. Not only are the current rulers of England (Lancastrian or Yorkist) heirs to Troy- they are also linked to the Roman Empire. This also implies that the descendants of Constantine the Great, including the Roman and Byzantine Emperors, are of a British pedigree - yet another dignified connection for the English kings of the 15th century.

Constantine the Great

On central (red) axis: King Coel (CRN269), Constantine the Roman (CRN270), & Constantine the Great (CRN271)
CRC060 (right): This claims Coel's daughter is the mother of Constantine the Great.

King Arthur & Merlin

Uther Pendragon and Arthur

Uther Pendragon (CRN281) & Arthur (CRN282)

The most famous British mythical character of all, King Arthur, is (predictably) included on the Canterbury Roll. Arthur was mentioned by chroniclers such as Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury, but the legend of King Arthur as we know it today appeared in full literary form in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia.

Ranulf Higden, the author of the Polychronicon, found the figure of King Arthur problematic, since he could find no other references to the extraordinary deeds of the man.

Nonetheless, the story of Arthur and Merlin was absorbed into established histories of Britain. King Arthur, Merlin, and Guinevere (characters that are still re-imagined today in popular culture) were readily blended into the history of early Britain. Perhaps Arthur was a part of a vision of what early Britain ought to be: of heroic kings and great deeds.

The Canterbury Roll links such legendary forebears to the contemporary kings of England - lending the Lancastrians (and later the Yorkists) a sense of historical prestige and mythical legitimacy.

MSH