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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.
Though an Augustinian canon, William seems to have been much impressed by the intellectual culture of Cistercian monasticism in the North. Historia regum Anglicanum is dedicated to Ernald, the sixth abbot of Rievaulx (1189–99), and his Commentary on the Song of Songs was 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.
Manuscript: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 262. Dating from the beginning of the thirteenth century, Corpus 262 is one of the earliest manuscripts of the Historia rerum Anglicarum. The text occupies almost all of the codex (fols. 1r–125v) and is laid out in double columns of 40 lines. It is the work of one scribe writing a fine, upright, early Gothic bookhand. There are, however, some oddities in the arrangement of the contents: the chapters in book one which are usually numbered 14 and 15 are here found after chapter 17.
Other Online Images: The British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts offers access to images from several of the nine manuscripts, including seven images from MS Stowe 62 (formerly 857). The British Library’s Online Collection adds four images from MS Cotton Vespasian B.VI, an early thirteenth-century copy which belonged to Osney Priory near Oxford: 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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