Maelcun Ap Geront (Maelcun of Exeter)


Due to the autobiographical nature of much of his work, we know more about Maelcun than we do about any other commoner in pre-partition England. That notwithstanding, we know little of his life prior to 1066. Maelcun was born in 1045 or 1046 in Devon, almost certainly in Exeter, where his father was a comparatively successful merchant. His family were part of the small British speaking community of the city, which was excluded from the main power structure of Anglo-Saxon England, and suffered from legal discrimination under King Ine's laws.

His father, as a merchant, the highest position to which a Briton could aspire, was an important member of the communty, and travelled regularly on business to Brittany and Wales. It would appear from references in The wars of the Godwinsons, and The life and reign of King Harold, that Maelcun spent part of his teens as a novice in a monastery in Wales, possibly St David's. It has been suggested that he was the youngest of several brothers, and it was for that reason that he was sent to study for the monastic life. Whatever the truth, Maelcun learned both Latin and Welsh during his time in Wales, in addition to his native Defonek and Anglo-Saxon.

The next concrete knowledge we have of Maelcun is his participation in The Battle of Caldbeck in 1066, as a Huscarle in the employ of Gyrth Godwinson, Earl of East Anglia. Britons were prohibited from bearing arms at the time, and certainly it seems unusual that a native of Devon should find himself in the employ of an East Anglian lord. It has been speculated that Maelcun was taken as a slave during Harold Godwinson's campaigns in Wales and, due to his large physical stature, selected to serve the Godwinsons as a warrior. It is even possible that the young Briton posed as a Saxon in order to escape slavery, an oblique reference to Britons passing for Saxon to avoid discrimination "within my memory" appears in The history of the Britons in England.

After Caldbeck, probably in 1069, Godwinson became commander of a garrison of the Witan host at the iron-age fort of Maiden Castle, and oversaw the construction of the Motte and Bailey that are still visible today. He appears to have married a local woman, from whom he learned the local British dialect, Dorweale. He left that position in 1075, to serve Edmund McHarold, Earl of Cornwall. He was instrumental in Edmund's ambitious constitutional reforms, and later in his project translating religious books, histories and laws into Cornish, as well as collecting Arturian material. It appears to be at this point that the raw materials for his seminal The history of the Britons in England were collected.

Maelcun became Edmund's most trusted lieutenant and governed Cornwall in his stead whenever the Earl was away. During the war of the Godwinsons he was the effective ruler Cornwall for long periods of time, a fact that led to his most notable direct contribution to British history, leading Cornish and Devonian troops in a successful guerrilla war against the Breton invasion of 1082.

During the bloody civil war, much of the traditional aristocracy of southern Britain was killed and various Thegnships in Cornwall, Somersaete and Devon were left vacant. Maelcun was rewarded for his service with the title of Thegn of Exeter, as part of Edmund's policy of appointing Britons personally loyal to him to positions of authority. His position provided huge trade revenues, Exmouth boats traveled as far a field as Markland and the pillars of Hercules, and he became a wealthy man. It was at this time that he began his literary works, starting The life and reign of King Harold in 1088. His great legacy to Bretland was the foundation of "Skol Caer Wsg", founded 1090, where secular scholars from all over the British-speaking world were trained in languages and Maelcun's method of history. The increased Iberian-Jewish presence in Exeter led to the schools expansion into medicine and natural sciences.

Maelcun wrote continuously from 1088 until his death in 1117, completing his last work The life of Earl Edmund in that year. Several streets in Exeter bear his name, along with others in various Bretlandish cities.

Works and Influences

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Maelcun's work to our understanding of British history and the development of historiograpical methodology. He left behind eight lengthly histories (The life and reign of King Harold, The wars of the Godwinsons, The history of the Britons in England, A true account of the death of Edward Martyr, The Kings of Devon and Cornwall and their fall, The advent of the Saxons, Earl Godwin, The life of Earl Edmund) a volume of commentaries on Arthurian material from various sources, and the autobiographical Memories from the wars of the Godwinsons. It is also quite probable that he was also involved in the process of recording secular legends and bardic histories at the Skol Caer Wsg, without which we should probably have never have heard of Beowulf, The Ingold Cycle or the breathtaking Cornish epic "The Traitor Cerdic".

The distinguishing feature of his historical writing is the careful evaluation of his sources, and often the attachment of the relevant source material in appendices. His careful consideration of evidence, and his assertion that history was not a collection of facts and dates, but an exercise in approximation, has informed all subsequent historiography. His protagonism in the significant political and military events of the time clearly inform this view. In his The advent of the Saxons he stated "Although I drank meade with King Harold, I can not be sure whether or not he swore an oath to Duke William, as many have claimed. I was a mere mile from the place where Harold fell, but I have grave doubts as to the manner he suffered his fatal wound, and I was in the very room when Duke William was slain, but I know not the reason for his death. Now I will explain to you, with great certainty, why Vortigern invited the curse of the Saxons upon his race, and why Cerdig betrayed his master Arthur."

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