Most nations have a legendary founding figure, and Britain is no different. According to the earliest legendary account of the origins of the island, the man who led his nation to ancient Britain and founded the first kingdoms there was named Brutus.
Let’s first take a look at the legendary family of this man. He was said to have come from a prestigious background, being descended from a Trojan prince. This was not just any prince, but was specifically Aeneas, one of the characters mentioned by Homer in the Iliad. However, the specific details concerning the ancestral connection between Aeneas and Brutus are not clear, since different versions of their relationship are given in different accounts.
The most common ancestry is this:
- Aeneas, prince of Troy
This is the version that is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s hugely popular Historia Regum Britanniae, hence why this ancestry is the most common version. However, we find something different in the earlier Historia Brittonum. In this ninth century work, there are actually several different ancestries given to Brutus, but the one that is most similar to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s one is the one that appears in the actual narrative of Brutus’ early life (which we will examine shortly). It is as follows:
- Aeneas, prince of Troy
Silvius does appear in this account, but he is presented as the brother of Brutus, not his father. But the account is somewhat confusing and seems to be contradictory. In one place, Silvius is said to be the forefather of the inhabitants of Britain, and yet they are also said to have been descended from Brutus immediately afterwards. This would suggest that Silvius was actually the father of Brutus, and in some manuscripts, the narrative account of Brutus’ birth does name the father Silvius rather than Ascanius. The author of the Historia Brittonum claimed to have been including information from numerous different sources, and the various conflicting pieces of information about Brutus certainly appears to match that claim.
In any case, these characters were not invented by the writer of the Historia Brittonum, nor by any earlier scribes of the British Isles. They actually appear in ancient Greek legend. Notably, Aeneas’s life is described in Vergil’s Aeneid, and the characters of Ascanius and Silvius appear there. So the founding of Britain is, according to legend at least, intimately interwoven with Greek legend.
Of course, Brutus himself does not actually appear in these Greek records, leaving open the accusation that he was a much more modern invention compared to those authentic Greek characters. We will see later whether or not there is any reason to accept the possibility that Brutus might have been more than just the invention of post-Roman British scribes. But for now, note how the other distinct ancestry recorded in the Historia Brittonum connects Brutus to not just Greek legend, but Roman legend.
This scribe tells us that an alternative genealogical record for Brutus was as follows:
- Numa Pompilius
- Rhea Silvia
So while this record does go back to Aeneas, it goes through a number of individuals from Roman legend. One of these is Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. Another is Numa Pompilius, one of the legendary kings of Rome before the Republic was formed. Evidently there has been some kind of confusion between Numa Pompilius and Numitor, the actual father of Rhea Silvia according to ancient Roman legend.
As regards the children of Brutus, the Historia Brittonum does not have anything to say. It is not until Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae that his children are described. They are:
These three children are said to have been the forefathers of the inhabitants of three distinct parts of Britain, but we will examine that in more detail later.
The wife of Brutus is also not mentioned until the Historia Regum Britanniae. She was named Ignoge, and she was the eldest daughter of a king of the Greeks named Pandrasus, whom Brutus defeated in war.
Notable facts about Brutus’ early life start from before he was even born. While his mother was pregnant, a magician in Aeneas’s court gave a prophecy about him. In the version as recounted by the Historia Brittonum, the magician prophesied that this child would grow up to be the most beloved of all the Italians, and the most valiant of all men.
In the version as recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the magician adds that the boy will be the cause of both his parents’ deaths. In both versions, Brutus’ father (Ascanius or Silvius, depending on the version) is enraged at this prophecy and kills the magician. And also in both versions, it is subsequently described how this took place. First, Brutus’ mother died in childbirth. Second, years later, Brutus accidentally killed his father during a hunting trip by shooting him with an arrow.
As a result of this, Brutus was banished from Italy. The Historia Brittonum does not add many more details than this, but simply says that he went to the islands of the Tyrrhenian Sea, before then travelling to Gaul (where he founded the city of Tours) and finally ending up in Britain. However, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account gives much more detail, so we will now examine this journey step by step.
War Against the Greeks
While Geoffrey’s account agrees that Brutus was banished from Italy and ended up in the Tyrrhenian Sea, it adds several other significant events before that.
The first is a war against the Greeks. After leaving Italy, Brutus arrived in Greece and discovered that a large group of fellow Trojans were held captive there, slaves under the Greek king Pandrasus.
Brutus, still a young man at this time, voluntarily joined himself to these subjected Trojans. He gradually rose among their ranks, making a great reputation for himself and having the Trojans from all over the land flock to him. They pleaded with him to release them from the bondage of the Greeks. Eventually, after assessing their situation and concluding that it would be possible, Brutus agreed.
The first action he took was to withdraw the Trojans to the woods and send a letter to the king requesting that they be allowed to live there in freedom; and if not, that they be allowed to leave the country. Pandrasus did not respond well, deciding to wage war against the Trojans. But Brutus and his men were able to come upon the Greeks unawares and kill many of them.
Pandrasus and his army then besieged a castle where many Trojans had fled to, leading to Brutus needing to rescue them. He devised a plan to lead much of the Greek army away from the siege and into the woods, where the Trojans would ambush them. The plan worked perfectly, and then the Trojans sneaked into the Greek camp at night and suddenly attacked them, slaughtering the entire army.
Brutus preserved the king alive so as to force him to grant their freedom. This he did, and the Trojans left the country along with enormous quantities of gold and silver and other resources, including many ships. Even Pandrasus’ own daughter, Ignoge, was given to Brutus as his wife.
Migration to Britain
From this point on, Brutus was the leader of a large nomadic nation of Trojan refugees. This can properly be viewed as the start of the Trojan migration to Britain.
The first place Brutus arrived at with his wandering Trojans was an island called Leogecia (generally identified with Lefkada, just off mainland Greece, but this identification is not certain). The island was uninhabited, but his men found an abandoned city where worship of the goddess Diana had been performed. So Brutus attempted to worship the goddess, and that night he had a vision of her talking to him. In this vision, she told Brutus of an island for him to take possession of beyond Gaul, inhabited by only a few giants.
From this moment on, Brutus had a clear goal in mind: get to that island. He set sail with his wandering nation and headed west, towards the exit of the Mediterranean. They fought some pirates along the coast of north Africa, gaining more wealth after defeating them.
But eventually, the provisions of the Trojans grew scarce, so Brutus had his men go ashore and lay waste to the whole country (by this time, they had reached the ancient territory of Mauretania). After gathering many spoils from the land, they continued on their journey west. However, as they were heading through the Pillars of Hercules (the two mountains on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar), they were attacked by sirens.
To escape, Brutus led his men further back into the Mediterranean, to the Tyrrhenian Sea (now we are at the point that the Historia Brittonum first described after mentioning Brutus leaving Italy). On the shores of this sea, he encountered more Trojan refugees. These were under the command of a man named Corineus. The two groups – one led by Brutus and the other led by Corineus – joined forces under the supreme leadership of Brutus.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account next says that Brutus arrived at Aquitaine at the mouth of the River Loire. This would suggest that he was able to successfully navigate through the Pillars of Hercules after meeting up with Corineus, though such a successful passage is never actually described. In any case, Brutus and his Trojans arrived at the mouth of the Loire and, as the account says, cast anchor there.
Some of Brutus’ men, led by Corineus, went hunting in that territory. Representatives of the king of the land (named Goffarius Pictus) then arrived and quarrelled about the fact that they were hunting the king’s animals without permission. This quarrel broke out into fighting and killing and sparked a war between the Trojans and the men of Aquitaine.
The fighting lasted for some time. At one point, Goffarius retreated into Gaul to request the assistance of other kings of that country. During this time, Brutus took the opportunity to ravage as much of the country as he could. He then set himself up at Tours (the city had not yet been built, but would be very shortly).
When Goffarius and his coalition returned, Brutus found himself overwhelmed, though his men were exerting themselves vigorously and putting up a hard fight. But due to the superior numbers of the Gauls, the Trojans found themselves pushed back and severely oppressed. Fortunately for Brutus, the fighting stopped as night fell.
He and Corineus devised a plan to defeat the Gauls. Corineus would take troops round the back of the Gallic army during the night and position himself there until morning. Brutus would then attack from the front. The plan worked perfectly and the Gauls were defeated. However, Brutus’ nephew Turones was killed in the fighting. The city, Turones (now known as Tours), was named in his honour.
Although the Trojans had been victorious, Brutus was concerned about the enemy returning. Rather than risking any more battles, he decided to leave that place and sail away to the island that Diana had mentioned to him in his dream.
The Raiding of Spain
At least, this is how the Historia Regum Britanniae portrays events. The earlier Historia Brittonum mentions Brutus subduing Spain before he went on to subdue Britain. So when did this occur? Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account makes no mention of it. However, his account suggests that more took place after the defeat of Goffarius Pictus and his allied kings than it first appears. How so?
He makes it clear that the city of Tours had not yet been built by the time the battle that resulted in Turones’ death took place. Yet, in a slightly earlier part of his book, Geoffrey specifically states that Brutus built the city of Tours. So Brutus must have stayed in the area for quite some time after that successful battle against the Gauls – at least long enough to build a city. Perhaps, around this time, Brutus also went and plundered Spain.
An alternative possibility is that this occurred during the undocumented voyage from the Tyrrhenian Sea (when Brutus joined forces with Corineus) to Aquitaine in France. Such a journey would take the voyagers past Spain, so perhaps they plundered that country on the way to Aquitaine.
It is not clear which solution is correct, but in any case, we can be grateful that the Historia Brittonum provides us with a detail about Brutus’ journey to Britain that we would not otherwise know.
Founding the Kingdoms of Britain
With that, Brutus and his wandering nation of Trojan refugees left Gaul and arrived in Britain. They landed on the coast of Devon, in Totnes. As mentioned before, there were only a few giants inhabiting the island, and these were easily pushed back into the mountains and caves.
At this time, the island was said to have been called Albion (and it is known that this really was an early name for Britain). However, upon examining the country and appreciating its potential as their new home, Brutus decided to give it the name ‘Britain’. The inhabitants of the land would thenceforth be known as ‘Britons’.
A subkingdom that was founded just after Brutus arrived was the kingdom of Corinea (Cornwall). According to the account, this was named after Corineus, and the inhabitants were thereafter known as Corineans.
Within this part of Britain, there was a particularly high concentration of giants. On one occasion while Brutus was making an offering to the gods, a band of giants attacked his camp and slaughtered many of the Trojans (who are now called Britons in Geoffrey’s account). However, Brutus and his men were able to kill all of the giants, though one of them, the most fearsome, they preserved alive. Brutus arranged for a wrestling contest between this giant and Corineus, which resulted in Corineus hurling the giant off a cliff.
After this, Brutus decided to establish a proper kingdom for himself. He set his sights on an area by the Thames and built a city there. He called this city Troia Nova (New Troy). Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account goes on to explain that this name gradually came to be corrupted into Trinovantum. This is the city that then became London around the time of the arrival of the Romans into Britain (however, most scholars believe that there was no city in that spot prior to the Romans arriving).
After the founding of this city of Troia Nova, Brutus was said to have had the three sons mentioned earlier: Locrinus, Albanactus, and Kamber. These three sons were the founders of three distinct parts of Britain.
Locrinus possessed the territory known as Loegria (known as Lloegyr in Welsh). This roughly corresponds to modern-day England, though not including Cornwall and not including the north west of England.
Albanactus possessed the territory of Albania, or Scotland (almost identical to its present-day boundaries).
Kamber possessed the territory of Kambria (known in Welsh as Cymru), which roughly corresponds to modern-day Wales. However, this ancient territory also encompassed the part of north west England that was outside of Loegria.
Thus, Brutus established three separate dynasties covering the entirety of Britain apart from Cornwall, all descended from that one Trojan prince. At least, this is what the legend claims.
Brutus is almost universally dismissed as a fictional character. Although many of his relatives are found in ancient Roman and Greek literature, he himself is supposedly not. It is true that he is definitely not found in any ancient literature concerning the Trojan War or the immediate aftermath thereof.
This being the case, it is very understandable why scholars dismiss him as fictional. However, the conclusion that he is not found in any ancient record does not appear to be in accord with the information presented in the Historia Brittonum. In reality, it would seem that this conclusion is based on a false premise – that Brutus would have lived just a few generations after the Trojan War, which most scholars place in about 1200 BCE. Let’s remind ourselves of what the Historia Brittonum actually says.
As we noted near the beginning of this article, Brutus is given several different lineages. It is true that one of these places him just two generations or so after Aeneas, a combatant during the Trojan War. And it’s true that this was the lineage that became popular through means of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. However, this is not the lineage that best fits the rest of the information contained in the Historia Brittonum.
For example, Brutus is referred to several times in the Historia Brittonum as a consul. The very first mention of him includes this fact, saying that Britain was named after Brutus, a Roman consul. His being a consul is mentioned again in the passage about Ascanius and Silvius and the descent of the Romans and the Britons. It is also mentioned later in an account about the arrival of the Irish to the British Isles.
This information would require Brutus to have been an individual of the sixth century BCE or later, for the Romans first had consuls in the late-sixth century. Interestingly, the other version of his ancestry that is found in the Historia Brittonum (grouping all the variations of ‘Aeneas – Ascanius – Silvius – Brutus’ as one distinct version) makes him the great-great-grandson of Numa Pompilius, known from classical Roman records as having reigned among the Romans from about 715 to about 673 BCE. A great-great-grandson of his would likely have lived in the sixth century and would thus have been able to have been one of the first consuls of Rome.
In fact, the reference to Brutus in the passage about the arrival of the Irish mentions specifically that he was the first one to hold the consulship among the Romans. This fits in perfectly with the genealogy that makes him the great-great-grandson of Numa Pompilius. And who, historically, was the first consul of the Romans? It was a man named Lucius Junius Brutus.
Given the numerous references to Brutus as a consul, including this specific one which says that he was the first, as well as the claim that he lived about four generations after the seventh-century king Numa Pompilius, it seems extremely likely that Lucius Junius Brutus is the Brutus being described by the Historia Brittonum.
There are many examples of genealogies being shortened or abbreviated. Given the aforementioned evidence, it seems probable that Brutus was made the grandson or great-grandson of Aeneas due to a scribe seeing an abbreviated version of his ancestry (for Numa Pompilius himself was said to have been descended from Ascanius and Aeneas).
Or, potentially, there was some confusion between Aeneas’s son Ascanius and Brutus’s father Hisicion (his father according to the second ancestry we are now given preference to). Removing the latinised ‘ius’ ending from ‘Ascanius’ leaves ‘Ascan’, which could possibly have become confused with ‘Hisicion’ through verbal transmission of the story.
Whatever the explanation, it is very likely that his ancestry was somehow condensed so as to make him just the grandson of Aeneas, rather than a later descendant. This is what has caused researchers in general to fail to identify the Brutus of British legend with Lucius Junius Brutus, despite the fact that the Historia Brittonum repeatedly calls him a consul. Really, it is likely that such a connection would never have been missed were it not for the fact that the hugely popular Historia Regum Britanniae made the shorter genealogy by far the more famous one.
When we look at the information available about Lucius Junius Brutus, there are several similarities to be noted between him and the Brutus of British legend. Firstly, just as the legendary Brutus was connected with a prophecy about him early on in his life, so was the historical Brutus.
According to Roman accounts, Brutus was taken to the Oracle of Delphi along with his cousins, the sons of Tarquinius the king of Rome. When asked by the sons which of them would be the next king of Rome, the oracle prophesied that the one who would ‘hold supreme sway in Rome’ would be the first one among them to kiss their mother. The young Brutus pretended to fall and then he kissed the ground, interpreting ‘mother’ to mean Gaia, the goddess of the earth.
So there was, according to the later Roman records, a prophecy that applied to young Brutus to the effect that he would eventually hold supreme power over Rome. This could surely have evolved over many centuries of telling and retelling into the legend of a magician prophesying that Brutus would grow up to be the most beloved and valiant man in all of Italy.
It is true that the Historia Brittonum simply describes Brutus as accidentally killing his father after this part of the account, which then leads to his banishment from Italy. Nonetheless, it does definitely describe him as a consul elsewhere, and specifically a Roman consul, so we can conclude that the Brutus of British legend must have held his consulship at some point before he left Italy. Thus, the prophecy and the consulship both match the details about the historical Lucius Junius Brutus.
Regarding his causing the deaths of his mother and his father, a potential origin for this can be found in the life of Lucius Junius Brutus. One notable event in his life was the execution of his two sons after they conspired against him. While it is obviously not the same as causing the deaths of his father and his mother, it still means that he was responsible for the deaths of two immediate family members, which could have evolved over the centuries into the story as it appears in the Historia Brittonum. In addition, in the British legends, the deaths of his mother and father were supposed to have occurred while Brutus was still in Italy, which is another small area of agreement between the legend and the events of Lucius Junius Brutus’s life.
To summarise so far, the account of the life of Brutus in Italy as found in the Historia Brittonum corresponds in broad terms with the information about Lucius Junius Brutus from Roman records. We have:
- Prophecy about becoming a mighty man in Italy.
- Rules as consul over the Romans.
- Causes the deaths of two immediate family members while still in Italy.
In addition to these details, there is also the fact that the Brutus of British legend was said to have had a nephew named Turones. This may well be derived from the fact that Lucius Junius Brutus was a member of the royal family of the Tarquinians. Thus, he had a number of cousins with the name ‘Tarquinius’.
There are many examples of ‘cousin’ and ‘nephew’ being confused in legends. For example, in the Arthurian legends, Hoel is sometimes described as King Arthur’s cousin and sometimes described as his nephew, and the same can be said for Arthur’s relationship with Constantine. So it could easily be the case that Brutus’ ‘nephew’ Turones was actually a cousin by the name of Tarquinius.
It is clear that the legends are not particularly accurate, but it can still be seen that the same fundamentals are there in both the story of the legendary Brutus and the accounts about the historical Lucius Junius Brutus – at least, in terms of their life in Italy. However, the similarities end when it comes to Brutus’ fate.
Lucius Junius Brutus certainly was not banished from Italy, like he is described as being in the Historia Brittonum. But, if the late legend about Brutus causing his parents’ deaths comes from distorted accounts about the historical man killing his two sons, then obviously he could not have actually been banished for killing his father, for that never actually happened.
According to the available Roman records, Lucius Junius Brutus was killed in the Battle of Silva Arsia – a battle between Brutus and the deposed king Tarquinius Superbus. This, of course, does not conform to the legend contained in the Historia Brittonum and subsequent accounts. However, it must be acknowledged that these Roman records themselves are little more than legends. While Lucius Junius Brutus is accepted as a historical person by most scholars, the records about him come from hundreds of years after he would have lived.
The reason for this is that virtually all records in Rome were destroyed when the Gauls attacked the city in the 380s BCE. Thus, there are no reliable records about Brutus for us to use to be able to say for certain what he did or didn’t do. Most of the information comes from Livy, who wrote about 400 years after Brutus lived. So the claim that he died in battle against Tarquinius Superbus is not a claim that necessarily has to be accepted. It could easily be wrong.
There is no way of knowing what actually happened, but at least it can be stated that the available records do not definitively prevent the British legend from being true – perhaps he really did sail away from Italy and ended up in Britain, establishing a dynasty there. There is no way of knowing for sure what happened to him.
In any case, we can see that Brutus himself was almost certainly a historical character. The first part of the legend of Brutus can clearly be connected with events in the life of Lucius Junius Brutus, and even his ‘nephew’ Turones appears to have been based on a real cousin of Brutus named Tarquinius. However, it seems that whether the historical Brutus ever actually sailed to Britain or not will have to remain a mystery – at least until more contemporary evidence is discovered.