King Arthur’s doughty champion fights again
A book written by one of King Arthur’s greatest champions is to be re-published over 400 years after it made its first appearance.
Sir John Prise of Brecon’s Historiae Britannicae Defensio (‘A Defence of the British History’) was first published, in Latin, in 1573. It was a stalwart defence of the validity of a traditional Welsh origin myth, as established by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century, which traced Welsh history back to Brutus of Troy in the eleventh century B.C.
In 1534, an Italian humanist named Polydore Vergil published Anglica Historia (‘The History of England’), in which he attempted, quite successfully, to debunk the Welsh myth, and dared to raise doubts as to belief in the historical existence of traditional heroes, including King Arthur. Sir John Prise, a Welsh lawyer and administrator who had worked for Thomas Cromwell and King Henry VIII in the suppression of monastic houses, and who was himself an erudite scholar, rose to the challenge of defending his native traditions, and did so in a forensic-like manner.
Prise began writing his Defensio in the 1540s, basing many of his arguments on the Welsh manuscripts which he had seen, or were in his possession. These included the thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen – containing some of the earliest references to Arthur and Merlin - which is now at the National Library of Wales. He argued that, whilst not all legends surrounding Arthur and Brutus could be believed, the Italian humanist and others were at a distinct disadvantage in not being able to access Welsh historical sources. For Prise, these proved that Arthur had, in fact, lived.
Sir John Prise died in 1555, without publishing his work, but entrusted the manuscript to his son Richard (who was named after Cromwell’s nephew). It was he who published the Defensio in 1573, and the appearance of the book ignited a new interest in Welsh history, based upon the greater study of source materials. Successive generations of Welsh scholars – among them Charles Edwards, Robert Vaughan and Theophilus Evans – were inspired by their respect for the myth created by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Now, over 400 years later, and coinciding with an exhibition and season on Sir John Prise and his work at the National Library of Wales, the Historiae Britannicae Defensio is to be published again, this time with an accompanying English translation. One of Wales’s greatest contemporary scholars, Professor Ceri Davies, Emeritus Professor of Classics at Swansea University, has not only edited and translated the entire work, but has also added an extensive introduction and notes setting the Defensio in its context.
Professor Davies has stated: ‘John Prise is a fascinating character: an important servant of the Crown, certainly, but one whose abiding reputation is as a man who combined with public duty a profound commitment to literary and scholarly pursuits. He stood at the cusp of the transition from the medieval to the early modern world and his scholarship grew out of the tension between the two – on the one hand, the world of ‘the antiquities of the Britons’ (as he calls them), on the other, the energetic world of Renaissance humanism. My hope is that, together with the National Library’s splendid exhibition, the new book will serve to kindle fresh interest in this engaging Latin work and in its author.’
The work of 390 pages appears as volume 6 in the series British Writers of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, edited by James P. Carley, Anne Hudson, Richard Sharpe, and James Willoughby. Published in the UK and Europe by Bodleian Library Publishing, Oxford, and in North America by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, the book will be launched, following a lecture by Professor Davies, at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth on Saturday, 20 June.
A week later, on 27 June, the exhibition Publisher and Plunderer? Sir John Prise and the earliest Welsh books, will come to an end.
- King Arthur, as depicted in the early 14th-century (NLW, Peniarth MS 23C, f. 75v).
- Title page of John Prise’s Historiae Brytannicae Defensio, 1573.
- Cover image for Professor Davies’s new book.
Image rights for 1-2: ©The National Library of Wales / Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, Aberystwyth.
Image rights for 3: ©The Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto.
Professor Ceri Davies can be contacted via the National Library of Wales Press Office at: firstname.lastname@example.org OR 01970 632 534