The very first mention of King Lear was in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘History of the Kings of Britain’, written in the 12th century. According to Geoffrey, who referred to Lear as Leir, the king was the founder of the city of Leicester.
Lear’s father was Bladud, a descendant of Brutus who had conquered Britain. Bladud had built the city now known as Bath. His rule was cut short when he died attempting to fly with artificial wings.
On succeeding his father, Lear rules the land for sixty years. His only children are his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. Although he loves them all dearly, it is Cordelia he is most fond of.
'The Three Daughters of King Lear' ~ Gustav Pope
Aware of the passing of time and his advancing years, Lear gives thought to the future of his kingdom. He makes the decision to, first, divide his realm amongst his daughters and then marry them to husbands worthy of them. Wondering who should receive the largest share, he decides to give it to the one who loves him the most.
Lear calls his daughters to him. First, he asks the oldest, Goneril, how much she loves him. Goneril replies that her father is dearer to her than her own soul, and this she swears by god in heaven. He is most pleased with her answer for she has chosen to set him before her own life. Lear states that he will marry her to a man of her own choosing, and give her one third of Britain.
He then asks his second daughter, Regan, the same question but fails to notice how eagerly she replies as she swears that she loves her father better than anyone else in the world. Delighted with her answer, he makes the same promise to her as he has done to Goneril.
Now it is the turn of the youngest. Unlike her father, Cordelia has seen through her sisters’ false flattery and resolves to bring her father to his senses by answering honestly. She tells him that she loves him as a daughter loves a father, no more and no less, and goes on to say that she could not, in all honesty, tender all her love toward him for when she is married, it is only right that she then turn her devotion to her husband.
Mistakenly believing that she has rejected him, Lear angrily denounces her, swearing she will never share the kingdom with her sisters. Still, because she is his daughter, he will see her married… to some stranger from another country.
Following the advice of his nobles, Lear marries Goneril to Maglaunus, duke of Albany, and Regan to Henvin, the duke of Cornwall. For their dowry, he gives them half the kingdom between them while he yet lives, and on his death, the whole of it.
Meanwhile, Aganippus, king of the Franks, sends ambassadors to Lear, asking for Cordelia’s hand in marriage, for he has heard of her beauty and would make her his wife. Still angry with her, Lear agrees to the marriage but states that he will not be giving Cordelia any dowry. As a ruler of a third of Gaul, Aganippus replies he has no wish for any dowry. And so Cordelia is sent to Gaul to be the wife of Aganippus.
'Cordelia's Farewell' ~ Edwin Austin Abbey
Years pass… Lear’s sons-in-law rebel against him and strip him of his crown and his kingdom, bringing his reign to an end. A truce is reached and Maglaunus agrees to maintain Lear with a household of sixty knights. Barely two years later, Goneril, angry that she has to feed her father’s household, persuades her husband to order Lear to dismiss half his knights and to be content with thirty.
Furious, Lear leaves them and travels to Henvin and Regan where he is received with honour. Barely a year later, disagreements flare up between Lear’s knights and those in Henvin’s service. Regan demands her father dismiss his knights, and to be content with five. Grossly insulted, Lear returns to Goneril but finds she is as angry as when he’d left, this time insisting that one knight is more than he needs for he is a man with nothing to call his own.
Left with only one knight, Lear is plagued by memories of when he was an honoured king. More and more, he finds himself thinking of Cordelia and wonders if he should travel to her court. He cannot be sure how well she will receive him, if at all, for he cannot deny that he had treated her most dishonourably. But he can no longer bear his mean existence, and so sets out for Gaul.
When Lear arrives at the city where Cordelia lives, he does not enter but, instead, waits outside and implores a messenger to take news of his pitiful state to his daughter. On being given the message, Cordelia weeps for her father, and is horrified to learn that he has no one, only a single knight, waiting with him outside the city.
Cordelia does not go to Lear but sends the messenger back to him with sufficient coin to take her father secretly to another city and ensure he is bathed, clothed and fed. She also orders that forty knights be appointed to her father. When Lear is ready, only then is he to announce himself to Aganippus and Cordelia.
Fully recovered and dressed in royal robes, Lear sends word to Cordelia and her husband, informing them that he has been driven out of Britain by his sons-in-law. He has come seeking their aid in recovering his kingdom. Lear realises the extent of his youngest daughter’s love for him when, instead of summoning him to their court, Cordelia, her husband and their court come to receive him with all honour.
An impressive number of knights answer Aganippus’ summons to help him recover his father-in-law’s kingdom. Lear, Aganippus and Cordelia lead the assembled army into Britain where they successfully defeat the treacherous sons-in-law, and Lear reclaims his lands. However, a mere three years later, both Lear and Aganippus die.
Cordelia is now queen of Britain, and she governs the kingdom in peace for five years. Then she finds herself beset by troubles. Her own sisters’ sons – Margan, son of Maglaunus, and Cunedag, son of Henvin – rebel against her for they do not think it fit that a woman should rule Britain. Proud and ambitious, they assemble an army and begin to lay waste to parts of Britain. After defeating Cordelia in several battles, they finally succeed in capturing her. Imprisoned, overwhelmed with grief, she takes her own life.