Saturday, 2 April 2016

St Goeznovius and the Legend of King Arthur

Saint Goeznovius/Gwyddno was a 6th century Cornish-born monk. He was a disciple of St Paul-Aurélian and later became Bishop of Léon. He founded a monastery at Langoeznou (now Gouesnou) in Finistère and his name also appears at Saint-Gouéno in Côtes d'Armor
Recently he has become famous because his ‘Life’ has an extraordinary Preface which outlines the career of King ArthurThis is one of the earliest recorded mentions of King Arthur. It comes from the Preface to the 'Life of Saint Goeznovius', written by William, Chaplain to Bishop Eudo of Léon. It was written in 1019, over 100 years before Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae ("History of the Kings of Britain"), the book which really fired up the King Arthur Legend [see also: King Arthur Lived in Brittany]. 
William claimed 'Ystoria Britannia' was the source of his information - a book which is now lost. Geoffrey's book too claimed to be based on 'a certain very ancient book written in the British language'.  
We now know that a lot of Geoffrey's 'Historia Regum' comes from material in the Historia Britonum [a 9th-century Welsh/Latin anthology], Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum and St Gildas' De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae [a 6th century polemic critical of British rulers]. But he was also  free to embellish, fabricate and head off on flights of his own imagination. 
What we don't know is what that other 'ancient book' might have been.The extract below tantalizingly hints at what it might have contained.
As in Geoffrey's account we hear here of Arthur's campaigns in Gaul and Britain and we see him 'summoned from human activity' as if he did not actually die but rather was taken away to be healed (and possibly to return). Above all, we feel a similarity between the two kings as if their life stories were drawn from a common (and certainly ancient) source.

"In the course of time, the usurping king Vortigern, to buttress the defence of the kingdom of Great Britain which he unrighteously held, summoned warlike men from the land of Saxony and made them his allies in the kingdom. Since they were pagans and of devilish character, lusting by their nature to shed human blood, they drew many evils upon the Britons. 

Presently their pride was checked for a while through the great Arthur, king of the Britons. They were largely cleared from the island and reduced to subjection. But when this same Arthur, after many victories which he won gloriously in Britain and in Gaul, was summoned at last from human activity, the way was open for the Saxons to go again into the island, and there was great oppression of the Britons, destruction of churches and persecution of saints. This persecution went on through the times of many kings, Saxons and Britons striving back and forth. . .

In those days, many holy men gave themselves up to martyrdom; others, in conformity to the Gospel, left the greater Britain which is now the Saxon's homeland, and sailed across to the lesser Britain (Brittany).

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