Nightbringer | The Arthurian Online Encyclopedia

Constantine of Brittany

Constans, Constance, Constant, Constantin, Constantins, Constantius, Custenhin

Ruler of Brittany and Arthur’s grandfather, found earliest in Geoffrey of Monmouth. Constantine was the brother of Aldroen (Aldroenus). A prince from the offshoot British kingdom in Armorica (given in unhistorically early foundation), he comes to Britain by invitation near the beginning of the fifth century, to organize defense against marauding barbarians. Completely successful, he is rewarded with the crown.

Father of Constans, who becomes a monk, Ambrosius Aurelius, and Uther Pendragon (or Maine, Pendragon, and Uther, as Robert de Boron and the Vulgate Merlin have it), the future father of Arthur. Constantine’s father may have been named Tahalais (Thailais), though Baudin Butor makes him the son of Londres. Butor is the only writer to name Constantine’s wife: Ivoire, sister of King Ban.

When Guethelin, Archbishop of London, came to Brittany to seek help in driving the Picts and Huns from Britain, Constantine agreed to accomplish the tasks. He traveled to Britain and destroyed the barbarians. Then, since there was no other suitable candidate, he was crowned king at Silchester. In the original accounts, Constantine ruled for ten years before he was assassinated by one of his servants – a Pict named Cadal (or, in some texts, by Vortigern himself); but the Vulgate Merlin purports that he died of old age. The crafty Vortigern, the Earl of Gwent, persuades Constans to leave his monastery and become king. Constans is a puppet in Vortigern’s hands, and presently he, too, is assassinated.

Suspicion falls on Vortigern. Constantine’s other sons are still children, and their guardians take them to the Breton court for safety. Vortigern seizes the crown. When the princes are grown up, however, they return and depose him, so that the royal house continues, producing Arthur in the next generation.

Constantine is based on a historical Roman army soldier who served in Britain. His story is given by Bede. In 407, his troops elected him “Emperor Constantine III” of Rome – despite the existence of a legitimate Roman emperor named Honorius – and he embarked for the continent on a war of acquistion. After conquering Gaul and Spain, he surrendered in 411 to the legitimate Roman army and the general of Honorius, and was soon murdered. Like the fictional Constantine, he apparently had a son named Constans who left a monastery, but who was already dead at the time of Constantine’s murder. The historical character survives in the accounts of Nennius and William of Malmesbury, and in a second Constantine mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but with legendary embellishments. Nennius thought that he was the King of Britain before Vortigern, though he gives a fairy accurate account of his continental exploits and his death. Geoffrey’s second King Constantine, who preceded Arthur’s grandfather, actually managed to conquer Rome from the Emperor Maxentius, but found his British throne usurped by Octavius.

Constantine III’s removal of troops from Britain was a prime cause of its severance from the Empire, which occured in 410. Left unprotected against the assaults of Saxons and other barbarians, the Britons turned against him. Honorius authorized them to arm in their own defense, with the result that they became self-governing. Geoffrey’s independent fifth-century Britain is founded, to that extent at least, on historical fact.

See also
The Roman Empire | The Legend of King Arthur

Historia Regum Britanniae | Geoffrey of Monmouth, c. 1138
Roman de Brut | Wace, c. 1155
Lancelot do Lac | 1215-1220
Vulgate Merlin | 1220-1235
Unknown (the pre-Arthurian period) | Baudin Butor, c. 1290
The Chronicle of Pierre de Langtoft | Pierre de Langtoft, c. 1300-1307