The tale of Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy and the legendary founder of Britain, has long been the subject of historical speculation and national pride for the British.
As a lover of all things Arthurian, I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Brutus as well as the debate that has ensued over his historicity. Consequently, I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Anthony Adolph’s new book Brutus of Troy and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British from publisher Pen & Sword.
For those not familiar with Brutus’ story, I’ll briefly summarize it before discussing Adolph’s book.
When Troy fell, as told in Homer, Aeneas, a cousin to King Priam and hence a prince of Troy, fled from the city. His story is told in Virgil’s Aeneid. Eventually, Aeneas arrives in Italy and his descendants, Romulus and Remus, found Rome. Brutus, a cousin to Rome’s founders, is Aeneas’ great-grandson. Brutus accidentally kills his father and is sent into exile. He travels to Greece where he finds a group of enslaved Trojans whom he helps to achieve their freedom. They then travel across the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and to Britain, which they colonize. Consequently, Brutus’ name is given to the island, Britain supposedly being a version of Brutus. The island, however, is occupied by giants, including Gogmagog, whom Brutus defeats. In time, Brutus’ descendants are successive kings of Britain, which leads down to the time of King Arthur and, eventually, through a Welsh line to Henry VII, making all successive monarchs of Great Britain Brutus’ descendants.
Various versions of Brutus’ story differ slightly in the details, but that’s the story in a nutshell. The question is—is the story true, and if not, why has it been so popular and mattered so much to the British?
Anthony Adolph sets out to answer those questions in Brutus of Troy. I admit that my initial desire to read this book came from my hope that Adolph would prove that the story of Brutus was undeniably true. After all, I’ve read books by authors like Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett, who believe the erasure of Brutus as a historical figure is a longstanding effort by the English to repress and destroy the Welsh sense of identity. I have no doubt that the English did plenty to oppress the Welsh over the centuries, but that doesn’t mean a Welsh legend is historical fact. Still, I’ve longed to believe Brutus’ story is true. After all, I can trace my own ancestry back to the Plantagenet kings of England, and Brutus was one of their alleged ancestors through the Welsh king Llewellyn the Great of Wales, and that would make Brutus my ancestor. It would also (and I’m being a bit facetious here) mean that since Brutus’ great-great-grandmother was Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, I am descended from the Greek Gods. (Now I know where I get my natural beauty.)
Adolph himself wanted to believe the story of Brutus, but the more he researched it, the more unlikely it seemed, and in the end, he had to conclude it is just a myth. Bummer. But that doesn’t mean that Brutus’ tale isn’t still a major part of the heritage of all modern-day Britons and their cousins in the United States and around the globe. Therefore, to understand the significance of Brutus’ legend, we need to look at how it developed.
A good bulk of Adolph’s book answers the question of how the story arose and why it became popular. He discusses how the Roman influence on Britain led to the Britons’ familiarity with classical literature, including the tales of Homer and Virgil about Troy. The arrival of Christianity in Britain also played a role. The British wished to link themselves to the classical and civilized world, to give themselves a substantial history, and so they manipulated genealogies to create the figure of Brutus and to make him the ancestor of their own Welsh kings. They also wanted to understand their place in the human family. They were not alone in this desire; the Irish, the French, and even the Norse made similar efforts, as Adolph describes—they found a way to manipulate genealogies to claim that the Trojans were the descendants of the biblical Noah, and later, the British created the tale of Joseph of Arimathea and even Christ coming to Britain. Joseph’s daughter, Anna, married Beli Mawr, a descendant of Brutus, and so the British became part of a line stretching back to Adam and Eve.
Yes, I still wish the tale of Brutus was true, but Adolph’s logic in explaining the tale’s evolution makes perfect sense and calls to mind another book I recently read, Myths of the Rune Stone by David Krueger about a Viking rune stone discovered in Minnesota in the late nineteenth century by a Scandinavian farmer. The stone was “proof” that the Vikings had traveled to Minnesota in the fourteenth century. Krueger explores how this stone was probably forged by the Scandinavian immigrants to Minnesota as a way to claim they had a right to the land they had taken from the Native Americans because their ancestors had been there before them. Similar claims are made regarding the Trojans in Britain—some people have even theorized that Troy was in Britain and the Trojans were driven out when Troy fell, so Brutus was leading a return to their homeland for his people. In any case, it comes as no surprise that people will manipulate the facts to create the history they want for themselves, and over time, what is false becomes perceived as the truth, and so for about a thousand years, the British people believed they were descendants of Brutus and his fellow Trojans.
Adolph goes on to explore how the legend of Brutus developed over time from the early medieval writing of Nennius to the elaborate History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and then into the Renaissance period, eighteenth century, and Victorian age. Adolph exhausts his subject, summarizing and quoting from every work about Brutus that he could find, including works by Milton, Pope, Blake, and Wordsworth. While I appreciated his thoroughness, I had to admit that I found many of these summaries boring to read because they repeated the Brutus story over and over, just noting the differences and similarities, and most of the poems about Brutus were not first-rate. I agree with Adolph, however, that William Blake’s version of the story was probably the best. Adolph concludes by mentioning modern fiction that incorporates the myth, including Hades’ Daughter (2003) by Australian novelist Sara Douglass, which portrays a darker version of Brutus and even suggests he later reincarnated as William the Conqueror.
Adolph also looks at efforts since the nineteenth century to prove the Brutus myth to be true, especially the work of the Victorian writer Rev. Richard Williams Morgan, whose works continue to be used by pseudo-historians but reflect creative scholarship and intentional twisting of history to fit his agenda of what he wants to believe.
Brutus of Troy concludes by looking at how the legend of Brutus has become part of British culture and how Brutus has become associated with various places in London (the New Troy that legend said he founded). Most notable of these is the Tower of London, where Brutus is said to be buried.
I especially appreciated the genealogy charts in the book that show how the current British royal family would be descended from Brutus and from Adam and Eve, if the genealogies were true, as well as showing Brutus’ relationship to other members of the Trojan royal family and its descendants, including Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. Finally, there are forty-five plate images in the middle of the book as well as illustrations throughout the rest of the book that depict places associated with Brutus and artwork based on his story. A particularly handy reference included is a timeline of the Brutus myth from the fall of Troy through the publications of various versions of his story, and of course, there is an extensive bibliography.
Brutus of Troy really made me understand better the role that the Brutus legend has played throughout British history and why it has stayed alive for centuries. It also made me want to read more of Anthony Adolph’s books since he is an avid writer about history and genealogy and the author of nine other books, including Tracing Your Aristocratic Ancestors and In Search of Our Ancient Ancestors.
Finally, of course, King Arthur gets a brief mention in terms of how he fits into the Brutus family tree. People interested in British history, genealogy, or the Arthurian legend will definitely want to add Brutus of Troy to their permanent collections.
For more information about Brutus of Troy and Anthony Adolph, visit Adolph’s website at http://anthonyadolph.co.uk/ or the publisher’s website at http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Brutus-of-Troy-Hardback/p/11213
Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur, a five-book historical fantasy series, of which the first three books—Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, and Ogier’s Prayer—are now in print. He is also the author of King Arthur’s Children, a scholarly exploration of Arthur’s descendants in history and fiction, as well as many other books. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.MarquetteFiction.com.