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Leicester Special Collections

Layamon's Brut

 Brut. The St Alban's Chronicle.

Layamon's Brut: The St Alban's Chronicle. 15th century. A reference to Goneril, one of Lear's daughters, is seen around the middle of the page.

In the 12th century, an English monk called Layamon took upon himself the task of writing a historiography of the British Isles in the form of a poem. The poem is named after the supposed mythical founder of Britain, Brutus of Troy. It is written in Middle English in a loose alliterative style. Two surviving 12th century copies of the manuscript are in the British Library. Archives and Special Collections at David Wilson Library holds a very rare manuscript copy, possibly from the 15th century, known by historians as the St Alban's Chronicle.

The text contains references to two of the most legendary kings in the land: Arthur and Lear. Apart from Layamon’s Brut and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), there are only a few sources which actually refer to Leir, the legendary king of the Britons who was once believed to be the founder of Leicester. Historians nowadays mostly dispute the factual existence of Lear and argue that a possible explanation for the connection between the words Leir and Leicester is that the name of the king derives from the Brittonic name of the River Soar.

There is no indication that Shakespeare has ever read or seen a manuscript of Brut; his knowledge of it would have been indirect, possibly through Holinshed. Nevertheless, the connection between Brut and King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, remains.