Leir of Britain

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King Leir and Daughters, a marginal illustration in the Northumberland Bestiary, c.1250

Leir is a legendary ancient king of the Britons, as recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth.[1] His story is told in a modified form by William Shakespeare in the play King Lear.[2] In the drama, some names are identical to those of the legend (e.g. Goneril, Regan, Cordelia), and the events are very similar.[2]

Leir's reign would be c. 8th century BC by his position in the family tree of the legendary House of Brutus.


In Geoffrey's Historia Regum Britanniae, Leir followed his father, King Bladud who had died while trying to fly with artificial wings. He became king of Britain and had the longest reign of all the kings at sixty years.[3] The date of his reign is not clear, but Geoffrey says that Leir's father lived at the same time as the Biblical prophet Elijah.

According to Geoffrey, Leir is the eponymous founder of Leicester (Legra-ceaster or Ligora-ceaster in Anglo-Saxon), called Cair Leir in Old Welsh.[4][5][6]


Unlike his predecessors, he produced no male heir to the throne but had three daughters: Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, whom he favoured most.[3] As he neared his death, he planned to divide the kingdom among his three daughters and their husbands.[3] Goneril and Regan flattered their father and were married off to the Duke of Albany and Duke of Cornwall respectively at the advice of the nobles, each being promised a third of the kingdom to inherit.[3] Cordelia, however, refused to flatter her father, feeling that he should not need special assurances of her love, and was given no land to rule.[3] Aganippus, the king of the Franks, courted Cordelia and married her, although Leir refused her a dowry.[3] Leir gave half his Kingdom to Goneril and Regan, and they would be given the whole after his death. Some time later, Leir became old, and the two dukes who had married his older daughters rebelled and seized the whole of the kingdom.[7] Maglaurus, the Duke of Albany, maintained Leir in his old age, protecting him with 60 knights.[7] However, Goneril disapproved of such extravagance and after two years decreased Leir's bodyguard to only thirty.[7] He fled to Cornwall, where Regan decreased his guard to only five knights.[7] He fled back to Albany and pleaded with Goneril, but he was given only one knight for protection.[7]


Fearing his two older daughters, he fled to Gaul and his youngest child.[7] Almost destitute, he was supported in secret by Cordelia after he sent a messenger to tell her he was outside Karitia, where his daughter lived. She had him bathed, royally clothed and assigned an entourage of knights befitting his station. He was then received officially by her husband and was held in high honour in Gaul, whose leaders vowed to restore him to his former glory and made him regent of Gaul until he was restored.[8] Leir, Cordelia, and Aganippus invaded Britain at the head of a large army and overthrew the dukes and their wives.[9] Leir reclaimed the throne of Britain and reigned for three more years until his death.[9] He was succeeded by Cordelia, who buried him in an underground chamber beneath the River Soar near Leicester.[9] It was dedicated to the Roman god Janus and every year people celebrated his feast-day near Leir's tomb.[9]


It is often claimed that there is a link between Leir and the Welsh and Irish sea-gods Llyr and Ler (derived from Common Celtic *Leros "Sea"[10]), but the names are not etymologically related. Geoffrey may have derived the name from Cair Leir (Leicester), the town he claims that the king founded. In fact, here Leir (along with Anglo-Saxon Legra or Ligora) is a hydronym derived from Brittonic *Ligera or *Ligora.[4][5][6]

In culture[edit]

Lear and Cordelia in Prison by William Blake, c. 1779

Before Shakespeare's King Lear, Leir's life had been dramatised in the eponymous play King Leir, which was registered in 1594 and published in 1605, under the tile The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. This play has a happy ending, repeating the story as presented in Geoffrey, with Leir's restoration to power. The story of Leir also appears in Higgins’s Mirror for Magistrates, Spenser's The Faerie Queene (II.10.27–33), and other works.[11]


  1. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae Wikisource:History of the Kings of Britain
  2. ^ a b Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare's Sources for King Lear. Shakespeare Online, accessed February, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 2.11
  4. ^ a b Kenneth Jackson, Language and HIstory in Early Britain, Edinburgh, 1953 p. 459
  5. ^ a b Eilert Ekwall, English river-names, Clarendon Press, 1928, p. xlii.
  6. ^ a b Stevenson, W. H., "A note on the derivation of the name 'Leicester'", in: The Archaeological Journal, Volume 75, Royal Archaeological Institute, London, 1918, pp. 30–31.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 2.12
  8. ^ Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 2.13
  9. ^ a b c d Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae 2.14
  10. ^ Whitley Stokes, Adalbert Bezzenberger, Wortschatz der keltischen Spracheinheit, Part 2, Edition 5, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979 (original ed. 1894), p. 249
  11. ^ Jay L. Halio, King Lear: A Guide to the Play, Greenwood Press, 2001, pp. 20-21.
Legendary titles
Preceded by
King of Britain Succeeded by