Brutus of Troy and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British

Brutus of Troy and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British
Anthony Adolph
Pen & Sword  237pp  £19.99

Those familiar with the obsessive delights of genealogy will have realised that if you can trace your family in Britain back to 1400 you are distantly related to everyone else who can do this and hence to kings, queens and, eventually, to Charlemagne. There is something very satisfying about such a compressed personal claim upon time’s immensity: no wonder the professional genealogist Anthony Adolph mentions on his book jacket that Prince George of Cambridge happens to be his 10th cousin twice removed. However, in Brutus of Troy and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British, Adolph is not essentially concerned with tracing family trees but with the links that have been constructed by fantasy-genealogy as applied to myth and legend and with the powerful meaning these constructs held for our real forebears as late as the 19th century. As he says: ‘Prince George is not really descended from Brutus, but he is descended from many, many generations of ancestors who believed they were.’

Two essential facts emerge early in this intricate, fascinating and densely written account of what did-not-actually-happen but which formed a bedrock of national identity and dreaming aspiration over 1,500 years. One is that the fabled Brutus – who allegedly landed in ‘Albion’ (Britain) at Totnes, slew giants, founded Oxford and London and sired a long line of kings from Arthur onwards – was nothing to do with the assassin of Julius Caesar, but was an exiled leader of the Trojans who survived the war and the destruction of Troy. The second fact is that, though Adolph ‘wanted desperately to unearth some evidence that Brutus had been a real historical character, heavily disguised by myth’, he was eventually forced to recognise that he was entirely fictitious. 

So why write his history? The answer is that Brutus is a lodestone of so much that our ancestors recounted as actual history (and has been so enmeshed with other real or partly real beings that have made up the fabric of the perceived story of mankind) that he has acquired a significant presence. In a time when we are increasingly aware of history’s subjective nature and of the way it is continually revisited to reflect newly evolving preoccupations, should it not be just as valid to examine the beliefs, convictions and concepts of identity of those who created Britain as to concentrate on verifiable events, especially as we are still evidently so attached to our myths? The two supposed giants, Gog and Magog, are paraded annually in London at the Lord Mayor’s Show. The London Stone is cherished, though it is probably part of a medieval waymark and nothing to do with London’s earliest foundation. Blake’s Jerusalem has been suggested as a more suitable national anthem than God Save the Queen, although Blake’s vision of Albion’s capital conflated with the rebuilding of Jerusalem is a relatively late addition of the rich mixture of the Brutus myth, an attempt to work the Lost Tribes of Israel into his already bulging family tree by claiming the exiled Trojans as one of the Tribes.

Essentially, Brutus was supposed to have been a great, great grandson of the Greek goddess Aphrodite through her Trojan son Aeneas (the hero of Virgil’s Aeniad). Brutus, in a familiar tradition of Greek mythology – see Oedipus – accidentally killed his father and was exiled to Greece. There he liberated the enslaved descendants of the Trojans and led them on a great voyage to settle in Britain. But, by the time the Welsh bards of the ages we call ‘dark’ had got busy on the story, much, much more had been added to Brutus’ pedigree, carrying his ancestry back from Aeneas to Zeus and thence – with a bold link to a surviving son of Noah – to Methuselah, Cain, Adam and Eve and hence to God himself.

A key exponent of the Brutus story was the 12th-century Augustinian monk, Geoffrey of Monmouth, a passionate reader of ancient books of which he made highly creative use. It seems to have been Geoffrey who introduced the Celtic myths to the story, including the twin giants and the Arthurian strand. The idea that Brutus had been the founder of London appears to have been his, though he was not solely responsible for the way the legend continued to burgeon. His History of the Kings of Britain also contained much factual material on relatively recent rulers and events and it was eagerly read by the small number of literate people who ran society. As a 20th-century director of the British Museum (Thomas Kendrick) has put it ‘extraneous oddments ... in the course of the Middle Ages stuck themselves like burrs on the accommodating body of [Geoffrey’s] History’. The Tudors, too, had a vested interest in emphasising their ancient Celtic origins.

The list Anthony Adolph has quarried out of those who adopted the Brutus story as material for their own creations is a roll call of the great, the half-great, the eccentric and the obsessed. In Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene Arthur and Britomart both discover the origins that connect them with Brutus; though one should not infer from this that Spenser actually believed this powerfully symbolic history. A century later, John Milton had the same view with his Paradise Lost. The Stuarts continued to make use of the symbolism and the architects of the Commonwealth hijacked it for Republican ends. After the Restoration in 1660 the emphasis shifted to London’s Roman origins, but the playwright Nahum Tate took the theme on in his Brutus of Alba and his play re-emerged a decade later as inspiration for Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas.

In the 18th century, one Hildebrand Jacob wrote a long and stirring epic poem on Brutus, and so, a little later, did Alexander Pope. Then comes Blake, with his transfiguring visions of the townscape around him. In the Victorian era a mysterious ‘CD’ tried his hand at the subject and in our time the palimpsest of the Brutus myth has burgeoned again in novels, with some Irish, transatlantic or Israeli extras added to it. Brutus is still there, beneath London’s ‘dreaming hills’. But on the evidence of Adolph’s excellent book, sleep he does not.

Gillian Tindall’s latest book is The Tunnel Through Time: A New Route for an Old London Journey (Chatto & Windus, 2016).

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