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Focusing on England and the deeds of its kings, William of Newburgh’s Historia covers the period from 1066 to 1198 in five books. The first book covers the period from 1066 to 1154, the second book deals with the reign of Henry II down to 1174, the third book takes the history from 1175 to Henry II’s death in 1189, while the final two books cover briefer periods, ending in 1194 and 1198 respectively. It seems to have been composed in a short period between 1196 and 1198. Since the narrative breaks off suddenly in May 1198, it has been inferred, perhaps wrongly, that William died while still working on this section of his history.
William's dedicatory letter gives the impression that he admired the intellectual culture of Cistercian monasticism in the north even though his order, the Augustinians, was committed to a contrasting kind of religious activity. Historia regum Anglicanum is dedicated to Ernald, the sixth abbot of Rievaulx (1189–99), but his Commentary on the Song of Songs was also written at the request of another Cistercian, Roger, abbot of Byland (d. c. 1199). Though much of his narrative probably depends on written sources, William also seems to have had good informants: he says, for example, that an eyewitness provided him with information on events in London in 1196. It seems likely that many of these informants were members of his own order or members of neighbouring Cistercian houses.
William is often regarded as a writer of some critical acumen, in no small part because of his preface in which he denounces Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Gesta Britonum for its ‘impudent fabrications’. He makes the argument that Bede would have mentioned Arthur if he had existed, and he points out Geoffrey’s ‘errors’, including the presence of kingdoms and archbishops unknown to history. But William was willing to entertain many fanciful tales when it suited his purposes. He participates fully, for example, in the twelfth-century fashion for stories about ghosts and the living dead. His dismissal of Geoffrey’s work may combine a need to establish his own authority at the expense of an author for whose aims he had no regard.
Historia rerum Anglicarum survives in nine manuscript copies. Of these, London, British Library, MS Stowe 62, is particularly significant, being a fair copy of which contains corrections in William’s own hand. It has the thirteenth-century ex libris of the Augustinian Priory at Newburgh (fols. 2v and 3, ‘Liber sancte Marie de Nouo Burgo’). Copies of his history were in the possession of the Cistercian houses at Rufford and Buildwas, while the Cistercian annals of Stanley in Wiltshire follow an incomplete text of William’s work.
Manuscripts for Discussion. Complete Online Facsimiles exist for the following copies:
Other Online Images: The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts offers access to images from several of the nine manuscripts, including seven images from Stowe MS 62 (formerly 857). The British Library’s Online Collection adds four images from Cotton MS Vespasian B.VI: fols. 111r, 119v, 133v, and 145r.
Text: William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum, ed. R. Howlett in Chronicles of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, Rolls Series 82, 4 vols. (London, 1884-89), i, 1–408, and ii, 409–53. MU5.
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