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The Oxford Companion to British History

J. A. Cannon


The extraordinary legend that Britain had been ‘founded’ by Brutus, great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy, haunted men's imagination for centuries. *Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the 12th cent., related how Brutus, after many adventures, visited England (landing at Totnes), subdued the race of giants who inhabited it, gave his name to it, and founded London as New Troy.

The implausibility of a myth is no great obstacle to its popularity and ‘Brutus’ ran and ran. Tudor historians deeply resented the suggestion of Polydore Vergil (a foreigner) that the story was not very likely as a slur upon the nation. The myth had important political consequences. First it put heart into the Welsh after centuries of defeat. They could comfort themselves with a heroic past which must foretell a glorious future: William of Newburgh, writing some 40 years after Geoffrey, remarked sourly that the story had only been told to please the Welsh. Secondly, Geoffrey's account of King *Arthur, a direct descendant of Brutus, told how he had conquered Ireland, Iceland, Orkney, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Normandy, and had challenged Rome itself. Tudor imperialists seized upon it. John Dee and others improved upon Arthur's conquests by adding America, visited by *Madog in the 12th cent., and called for a great new British empire. Until deep into the 20th cent. the imperialist vision inspired and helped to bind together the nations of the British Isles.

J. A. Cannon