Trojan Tales: London’s epic (and fake) origin story

Some people suggest that typos are not a big deal, and that we should all relax about spelling and grammar. Today’s blog is a cautionary tale.

Ancient Roman authors tell us that the ancient British tribe that lived in the London area was called the Trinobantes. (If you want to learn more about the real history of early London, I have blogged about it here).

It only took a small typo in medieval manuscript tradition for that to become Troinovantes, which happens to mean ‘New Trojans’.

The first known person to make this spelling mistake was a Welsh monk and historian, Nennius, who was writing in about 830 A.D. He stated that the Britons were New Trojans, but was a bit hazy on the actual details. How exactly had these Trojans got here?

The British Isles was crying out for a historian with enough guts, enough storytelling verve and enough of a disregard for basic facts to tell us more about these Trojans. Finally, around the year 1140, one Geoffrey of Monmouth answered the call.

Merlin dictates his prophecies to a clergyman, who might be a representative of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Public domain.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was a historian who never met a tale he considered too tall. Only Geoffrey of Monmouth could take a small spelling mistake and spin it into a national epic.

His History of the Kings of Britain is best known today for giving us Arthur and his wizard Merlin in some of their earliest recognizable forms. But the earlier parts of his chronicle are, if anything, even more exciting and even more action packed.

Today I want to retell the story of Brutus of Troy, the geographically confused Trojan who allegedly founded London. Throughout the middle ages, London was very proud of its Trojan legend – apparently there was even a proposal in the 1380s to rename the city ‘Little Troy’.

The Beginning

It all began with the Trojan war. So many great storytellers have already covered this topic, and I really can’t claim to do it justice here. The Greeks went to war with the Trojans and fought for ten long years outside the city walls. It was a war so epic that the Greek poet Homer literally wrote an epic about it (The Illiad).

Facing a stalemate, the Greeks gave the Trojans a peace offering of a gigantic wooden horse. The Trojans were happy to accept it: little did they know that Greek soldiers were hiding in its belly. That night, the soldiers escaped and sacked the city. Most of the Trojans were either slaughtered or enslaved

The Trojan horse. Public domain.

The very same night, visions of the dead appeared to Aeneas, prince of Troy. Get out, they warned him, while you still can! Aeneas and his family scrambled to the harbour, which was lit by the fire of the burning city. They took a small boat and sailed sadly onwards. They would go on to have a journey so epic that Roman poet Virgil literally wrote an epic about it (The Aeneid).

Aeneas flees the burning city. Public domain

They found a new home in Italy. There Aeneas married a princess and founded a dynasty of Kings. Decades later, these Italian Trojans would go on to found the city of Rome.

Brutus, the cursed child

We pick up the story with Aeneas’s grandson, Prince Silvius. Silvius had just knocked up a woman, out of wedlock. The royal soothsayers were asked: would it be a boy or a girl.

The reply came: the child would be a boy. But that boy had a terrible fate awaiting him. He would slay both of his parents and live a life of exile. (The royal soothsayers were apparently happy to answer questions that no one had asked).

Silvius didn’t like this message. But the pregnancy proved long and complicated. A boy was born, but his mother perished. The first part of the prophecy had come true.

A medallion of Brutus of Troy, of 1553. Public domain.

He named the boy Brutus. There were whispers in the court about the curse carried by this child. But Silvius ignored them. It had to be a coincidence? Silvius raised Brutus to be a prince and taught him all of the arts of war and princely behaviour.†††

When Brutus was fifteen years old, his father took him hunting in the woods. The two became separated. Brutus sent an arrow whistling through the undergrowth to strike his pray. Unwittingly, he struck his own father dead.

There was no one in Italy now to protect young Brutus. He was driven out, exiled and forced to seek out his fortune and livelihood alone.

Trojan Knights, Trojan Slaves

Brutus was a prince no more. But he still has his training in war, hunting and princely manners. He became a knight errant and wandered the world.

His travels took him to Greece, where he served under the mighty King Pandrasus. Brutus performed great feats of honour and fought in many battles. He built up riches in spoils of war, but then gave them away to the fighting men, ensuring his popularity. He met with wise sages and learned from them. In some ways he was living a charmed life. But there was something troubling him.

A tournament. This is the sort of thing that Knights errant usually do. Public domain.

Wherever he went, slaves flocked to his side. They were the decedents of the Trojans, the once might people brought low by war. The slaves were excited to see one of their own, living life as a prince. They begged him to free them. But he could do nothing.

A squabble erupted at the court of King Pandrasus. One of the nobles, Assacarus, was half Trojan. His enemies argued that Assacarus had no right to be a noble or hold castles and property. Assacarus was being pushed to the edge. He appealed to Brutus for help. This squabble would lead to out and out war.

The Battle for Freedom

Brutus and Assacarus rallied the slaves. Seven thousand flocked to them. They had to turn this rag-tag bunch into a functioning army. They took up station in the woods near Assacarus’s castle and adopted guerrilla tactics.

Brutus delivered a letter to Pandrasus: To Pandrasus, king of the Greeks, I Brutus leader of the Trojans send greetings. Although we are an ancient and noble people, we have chosen to live as if primitive people in the woods. This is because is better to live simply and to be free than to live in palaces as a slave. If this offends your power then please forgive us; but freedom and dignity is what every slave desires. If you can accept this, then let us live out our lives in peace in the secluded glades of the forest; or else let us leave your country. If not, then prepare for war. †

A stealthy man in a medieval forest. Public domain.

Pandrasus gathered his army and marched towards Assacarus’s castle. The Greeks had the siege engines, the wealth and more men. Brutus knew that in a conventional war, the Trojans didn’t have a chance. He had to find a way to even the odds.

Instead the Trojans melted into the woods. They pounced when the Greeks least expected it and pinned them against a river. Some drowned, many were killed. The Trojans took many prisoners, including the king’s own brother, Antigonus.

Archers on the cliff over a river fire arrows on unsuspecting soldiers beneath them. Credit to Biblotheque Nationale de France, here.

The war was now personal for King Pandrasus. He pressed on his remaining forces and besieged the fortress of Assacarus. The Greeks settled in for a siege.

A few days later, something unexpected happened. A Greek noble who had been captured by Trojans showed up. ‘We escaped’, he said. ‘But Antigonus is injured. Come and help me move him’. The noble led the best of the King’s guard into the dark of the wood. And there, Brutus fell on them.

The Greeks were badly weakened. Brutus calculated: one last push and we can win this. In the dead of the night, the Trojans attacked the royal camp from three directions at once. The Greeks were sleeping and barely had time to find their weapons. The king was captured. Victory belonged to the Trojans.

Brutus’s Odyssey

Brutus was now in possession both of the King and of his brother. With these two valuable lives he could buy the freedom of an entire people.

The Trojans had to work out what they wanted to ask for. Some suggested that they should demand a half or a third of the kingdom. Brutus however was sceptical: Trojans and Greeks have fought together so often. If we stay here, won’t we just end up fighting this war again?

Brutus proposed a more radical scheme: the Greeks would give treasure and ships to the Trojans. The Trojans would agree to leave and to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Their agreement with the Greeks was to be sealed with a marriage between Brutus and Pandrasus’ daughter, Innogene.

A ship beset by sirens. Creative commons licence

The deal was signed, and Brutus led the Trojans into exile. Poor Innogene was led away from her people and the land she knew. Geoffrey tells us that she climbed to the highest part of the ship and stared at the horizon. Once Greece passed out of site, she swooned with grief into Brutus’s arms.

A few days later the landed on Lefkada. In ancient times there had been a city here, but now the buildings were fading into the forest. Poking out of the forest was a temple to the Goddess Diana. Brutus made offerings there, and asked the goddess the most important question: where should we Trojans settle? By the magic of the place, the goddess’s image replied. Diana said that there was a place at the ends of the world, the island of Albion, which would be perfect place to build a new Troy.

A medieval image of Diana, being painted by the female artist Timarete. Taken from this website.

Back on the high seas, the crew passed many obstacles – so many that I won’t describe them all. They landed Africa, had a run in with some Sirens, and fought in a civil war in Aquitaine in the South of France.

Only one of these adventures is important to the plot. In somewhere around Italy (Geoffrey’s geography is a bit hazy on geography) they came across a lost colony of Trojans. They were led by Corineus, a man of huge strength and remarkable skill at war. He was in every way Brutus’s equal, and joined the crew as deputy leader.†

The figurine of Corineus in the Guildhall. Public domain.

The Trojans sailed on towards the lands on the edge of the known world. In the year 1136 B.C. they finally reached the shores of the island of Albion. They landed, according to tradition, on the site of the modern town of Totness.

This stone in Totness marks the supposed spot at which Brutus first landed in Britain. Creative Commons licence.

The Giants of Albion

To understand what happened next, we need to backtrack about two and a half centuries and re-locate to Syria. There was a mighty king in that country named Diocletian. He tried very hard to have a male heir. He had thirty daughters instead. Of these thirty daughters, we only know the name of the eldest: Albina.

Diocletian married off his daughters to the greatest and most ambitious men. He hoped to find his male heir amongst the in laws. These princes ended up spending more time trying to curry favour with their father in law than the did trying to impress their own wives.†††

Above: Diocletian introduces some bearded men to his many daughters. Below, Albina leads her sisters onto the shores of Albion, whilst two hairy sex daemons look on. Bodleian Library

Understandably, the thirty daughters were quite annoyed with their men. Less understandably, they decided to mass murder their husbands all in one night.

Diocletian was revolted. He cursed his daughters and had them imprisoned on a boat. He had the rudder and sails cut so that they could not steer, and then set them adrift. They drifted for days until they were wrecked on the shores of an uninhabited island. Albina leapt off the boat first and claimed the land as her own. Henceforth it would always be known as Albion, in her honour.

At first the women lived off gathering nuts, vegetables and fruits. However, after a while they learned to hunt. In medieval thought, meat was closely associated with lust. These thirty women were stranded without the company of men, and were cursed by all mankind. The women took a desperate step: they summoned daemons and had sex with them. Nine month later, this resulted in half-daemon babies. These cursed children became the race of Giants.†††

In the foreground: Albina and her crew land. In the background: 250 years later Brutus and his crew land, whilst two giants look on. Public domain.

This story has really been a long way of telling you that Albion was not abandoned. It was the home of a fearsome race of giants, born of the union between cursed murderesses and spooky sex daemons.

Making Britain, Founding London

The Trojans landed at Totness. Brutus was the first to touch the land. He named in Britain, after himself. They set ashore and drove the shocked giants into retreat. Corineus proved to be a masterful giant slayer.

Brutus lands and battles giants

On the left, Brutus and his party land. On the right, giants are attacked by the Trojans on horseback. Public domain.

The giants were not yet vanquished. They gathered together under the leadership of the greatest and most terrifying of the giants, named Gogmagog. He was so huge and so strong that he could pluck up an oak tree as though it were a stick.

One day, when the Trojans were holding festivities for the Gods, Gogmagog led a part of twenty giants in a sneak attack. At first the Trojans were slaughtered. But Brutus then rallied his men and they turned the tide. Eventually, every giant lay dead save Gogmagog.

Gogmagog would have a different ending. Brutus set up a grand gladiator tournament. Corineus and Gogmagog would wrestle, to the death. If Corineus won, he would become Duke of a province.

The fight was fearsome. At first Gogmagog had the upper hand. He squeezed Corineus so hard that three of his ribs shattered. Corineus bellowed in pain and hoisted up the Giant. Gogmagog was tossed high in the air, over the cliff and was dashed on the rocks in the sea.

Corineus throws Gogmagog into the sea. Original image from Bodleain Laud Misc 733, sourced from here.

The death of the King of the Giants was a momentous occasion. The Trojans were now in charge of the whole island. They could make their new Troy.

Brutus scoured the island for the perfect location. He found it on the Thames river. There he erected a mighty city with a grand palace, which would later (some say) become the London Guildhall. He erected a temple to Diana, which would later be turned into St Paul’s Cathedral. He also raised up the first walls and towers around the city. He endowed the city with all of the rights, liberties and governing structures associated with old Troy.

He named it Troy Novant, or new Troy. But we call it London. By this reckoning, London was founded a little before Rome!

On he left, King Brutus points to where he wants to build the city. Bottom: two masons work on stone. Top right: the new city of Troynovant rises. Public domain.

There, King Brutus and Queen Innogene became the first King and Queen of Britain. They founded a long line of Kings who would rule through to the time of King Arthur.

And I hope, if you’ve reached the end of this blog, that you begin to understand why Londoners though it was worth claiming to have been founded by Brutus of Troy. He was high born, but was rejected by his family. Brutus was a chivalric hero, but one who fought dirty. He was privileged, yet he fought for slaves. He was a sort of valiant mash up of Spartacus, Odysseus, King Arthur and the Mayflower pilgrims.  

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One thought on “Trojan Tales: London’s epic (and fake) origin story

  1. Single S in Totnes,otherwise great article.That stone in Totnes is about a mile from the river,up a steep hill,on the high st.

    Like

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