William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum

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.

Fire BeastWilliam is often regarded as a writer of some critical acumen, largely 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 otherwise 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. The argument that his dismissal of Geoffrey’s work was solely driven by a superior sense of historical judgement is hard to reconcile with his acceptance of these stories. Some other factor would seem to be involved.

There is no question that the Historia reached a Cistercian audience. The Cistercian houses at Rufford and Buildwas owned copies of the work, and in one manuscript the Cistercian annals of Stanley in Wiltshire follow an incomplete text of William’s work.

Manuscripts for Discussion. Historia rerum Anglicarum survives in nine manuscript copies. Complete Online Facsimiles exist for the following copies:

  1. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 262. Dateable to 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.
  2. London, British Library, Cotton MS Vespasian B.VI, fols. 111–182. Datable to the earlier thirteenth-century copy which belonged to Osney Priory, a house of Augustinian canons near Oxford. The last chapter is now missing, but it is mentioned in the table of contents (fol. 111v). The manuscript has near- contemporary marginal glosses in Latin.
  3. London, British Library, Stowe MS 62, fols. 2r–158r. Dateable to the first quarter of the thirteenth century, Stowe MS 62 comprises a fair copy of text that was made at Newburgh itself. Not only does it bear the priory’s thirteenth-century ex libris (fols. 2v and 3, ‘Liber sancte Marie de Nouo Burgo’), it also contains corrections and notes which may have been made by the author himself. Folios 159r–172r houses William of Newburgh’s sermons on Luke 11:27, the Trinity and St Alban, although the latter items are imperfect owing to the loss of a quire between fol. 166 and fol. 167.

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.

Edition and Translation: William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs: Book I, ed. and trs. P. G. Walsh and M. J. Kennedy (Warminster, 1988). MVE. The prologue and two extracts can be downloaded from the Moodle site.


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