Edward I and the Appropriation of Arthurian Legend
By Rachealle Marie Sanford
Honors Thesis, Western Kentucky University, 2009
Abstract: In recent years, an increasing interest in the appropriation of folklore by political leaders has led scholars to investigate potential instances where this may have occurred in the past. This work follows that tradition, examining the life and actions of King Edward I of England to determine if there are instances where he is making deliberate use of folk narrative for his own political aims. An analysis of several events discussed by past historians indicates that the king was intentionally manipulating the Arthurian legend, which was highly popular in Europe during the thirteenth century, to justify his claims to authority over both Scotland and Wales, and to potentially bolster his support among the English aristocracy.
“The justness of his [Arthur’s] cause encouraged him, for he had a claim by rightful inheritance to the kingship of the whole island.”
– Geoffrey of Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain
“King Augusele carried Arthur’s sword,
For the service of Scotland, which he owed to him.
Since that time to the present the kings of Scotland
Have all been subject to the king of Britain.”
–Letter of Edward I to Pope Boniface VIII
The Devolution Acts for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland were the subject of much debate both before and after they were passed by the UK Parliament in 1998. Ten years later, in the alleyways of Edinburgh, it is even possible to see graffiti chalked onto the walls in such politically charged slogans as “End English rule!” This type of activity could be viewed as indicative of the current political climate, which has led scholars to further question conceptions of nationalism and national identities in Britain, and to begin reinterpreting – perhaps even redefining—what it means to be Scottish, or Welsh, or English.
If a nation, as Benedict Anderson famously suggested, is an “imagined community,” then examining exactly how the peoples of the British Isles have “imagined” their relationship with each other and the rest of the world may provide insight into the nature of national identity in Britain and how it has evolved over time. The current folklore revivals associated with this search for a new understanding of national identity are also sparking inquiry, and studies concerning the political functions that folklore may have served in both the present and past could further our understanding of this issue.