Henry II and Arthurian Legend

Henry II and Arthurian Legend

By Martin Aurell

Henry II: New Interpretations, eds. Ch. Harper-Bill and N. Vincent (Boydell, 2007)

Henry II and  Eleanor - 14th century depiction

Introduction: Arthurian legend first makes its mark towards the end of the twelfth century, as one of the most fertile, innovative and popular genres in all of Western literature. For several decades now, a number of medievalists have directly linked this new fashion in Arthurian literature to the patronage of Henry II. In their view, the king, his wife and their children were the guiding lights behind a group of literate courtiers who developed and disseminated the matière de Bretagne. These clerks are assumed to have been working as propagandists for Henry II, who, thanks to this additional source of prestige, would rule his Plantagenet empire more effectively. This is an idea that has become widespread, albeit a number of voices have more recently been raised to question its basis in fact.

Among medieval historians, an interest in Henry II’s role as patron in relation to Arthurian legend is of relatively recent date. As late as 1973, in his long biography of the king, William Warren scarcely alluded to the matière de Bretagne. At most he restricted himself to a brief mention of the way in which the king indicated the whereabouts of Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury : a discovery Warren ascribed to the king’s ‘astonishing memory’. This brief episode, consigned to a footnote, appears in a chapter devoted to Henry’s character and personal qualities. Lack of interest in the subject might well be explained by the divisions – all too watertight in the 1960s and ’70s – between historians and students of literature. Interdisciplinary approaches were rare before the fashion for history of thought and culture took hold of medieval studies in the 1980s.

By the 1970s, structuralist literary critics were nonetheless endeavouring to discover an Indo-European, pagan and Celtic basis for the twelfth-century Arthurian texts, and were tending, in their search for such roots, towards a head-on collision with the political historians. researching the roots of Arthurian literature, a few of the literary specialists came across Henry II and his wife. In his biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example, Jean Markale stressed the resemblances between the legend of Henry II’s wife, who was represented in the Middle Ages as an incestuous nymphomaniac, and the legend of Guinevere, whose image, Markale supposed, was intended to reflect aspects of the fertility goddesses and polyandrous queens of Celtic myth. Along much the same lines, Philippe Walter has recently pointed out that the Breton word for the broom plant, the heraldic symbol of the counts of Anjou, is balanos, ‘shining’, the attributive name of the Gaulish Apollo : ‘So we see that the Plantagenets bore the name of the plant that, in Celtic tradition, symbolises war.’ The same writer also stresses the association between Apollo and the griin, and explains that this is the reason why ‘the dragon of Belenos is naturally associated with the figure of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, the mythical ancestor of the dynasty’.

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