The Gesta Regum Anglorum, compiled by William of Malmesbury in the thirteenth century had an interesting role to play in the English reformation as well as England’s refocused history. A search of Early English Books Online (EEBO) suggests that in the first fifty years of the sixteenth century the Gesta Regum Anglorum featured in only five printed texts. In the last fifty years of the century it featured sixteen times. The figures from EEBO are however not a fair judge. Although EEBO contains over 100,000 out of 125,000 printed texts listed in the ESTC the search will only bring up references found in associated metadata (titles, author, publisher etc.) and for those texts which are searchable via a transcript (a small proportion of the entire database). We therefore need to dig a little deeper.
According to Antonia Gransden, William of Malmesbury was the first man since Bede to produce a corpus of historical works. Gransden tells us that he absorbed both Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman traditions of historiography and added ‘his own individual genius’ (Gransden, v.1, p. 167). However, since the thirteenth century other histories had taken its place often, but not always absorbing the contents of their earlier progenitors including Malmesbury. Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon is the prime example and was, in the earlier portion of the sixteenth century, the standard medieval history upon which all contemporary histories were built. The English reformation changed all of that as a new need to revisit older histories became paramount to establishing the new church order.
The reformation posed a problem for those who studied the past; England’s history was largely written by Monks and as such revealed a very Roman Catholic view of the past. Protestant writers therefore looked beyond the Polychronicon and other recent histories in the search for clues hidden between the lines of older histories in the hope of showing that the Roman Catholics had hidden, corrupted or even lied about various truths. The works of William of Malmesbury were one such text.
Whether or not scholars realised the extent of William of Malmesbury’s corpus is however debatable. Whilst lists of works by John Bale in his Catalogus cannot be fully trusted as accurate, his list of 21 works for William of Malmesbury (Bale, 1559, 186-7) suggests that scholars were at least aware of his prolific nature.
On William of Malmesbury’s historiographical compunction, John Foxe (in his Acts and Monuments) appears to have realised that, for the most part, William could be trusted to show a critical awareness of his evidence, but that he could fall short sometimes when dealing with monastic origins. William of Malmesbury’s source base was equally prolific as his own written corpus. The Gesta Regum Anglorum and Gesta Pontificum Anglorum were derived from a careful reading of nearly all historians, biographers and hagiographers from the Anglo-Saxon period up to his own. In a sense, Malmesbury provided Foxe with a clear amalgam of anglo-saxon scholarship, helpfully divided between church matters (Pontificum Anglorum) and secular events (Regum Anglorum).
William of Malmesbury also provided Foxe with a version of history at once hostile to the Anglo-Saxons. Gransden describes the conception of the Anglo-Saxons in the Regum as a lustful and gluttonous race, lacking in religious observance (Gransden, p. 173). Helpful for Foxe also was William of Malmesbury’s preference for Canterbury over York during the controversies over the supremacy of those two archbishoprics. It was important for Foxe to support his chief patron, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker by declaring the supremacy of Canterbury in older histories.
On the surface it would seem, therefore that William of Malmesbury had a resurgence in popularity (and therefore of knowledge) in the latter half of the sixteenth-century. His history of the papacy and history of English kings was noted by John Bale, used by John Foxe, William Hollinshed, and John Stow, and was collected and examined by Matthew Parker. We must be careful, however, in this argument. The use of William’s works also by Polydore Virgil in the late 1520s suggests that this use was nothing new. William of Malmesbury also appears as a source in the fifteenth-century Fabyan Chronicles and, vitally, in Higden’s Polychronicon.
The alteration, it would appear, is largely a mirage. The sheer number of scholars working on history by the end of the sixteenth century, compared to its beginning, skews the evidence. William of Malmesbury was used more – and in different ways – by these later scholars only because history was again viewed as important. In the earlier portion of the century only a few scholars – primarily Polydore Virgil – bothered to write officially about the past. Some other histories did return into favour – such as Matthew Paris – but it would appear that William of Malmesbury had always been popular.
The evidence in sixteenth-century histories suggests that most scholars still looked at William’s manuscript chronicles where possible, rather than to simply rely upon later citations in the Polychronicon and elsewhere.