One of the key figures associated with the Middle Ages in England has been King Arthur, the legendary ruler who was made popular in medieval romances and chronicles. But in a recent lecture, Professor Henrietta Leyser argues that the Arthurian legend declined sharply in the later Middle Ages, replaced by a new hero emerged for the English people – St.George the Dragonslayer.
Leyser, Emeritus Fellow at the University of Oxford, spoke at the University of Toronto last month, where she is serving as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar. Her paper “Why Arthur is Never Enough: Identity Myths and Crises in the English Middle Ages”, was given to a large audience on the campus. In it, Leyser examines the role of Arthur during the High and Later Middle Ages, from the accounts by Geoffrey of Monmouth to Henry VIII, who reportedly hated the idea of King Arthur. In it she asks, “Why did the legend of Arthur tarnish?”
Leyser notes that with the Norman Conquest, a new form of kingship was imposed on the English people. William I, for example, made far-reaching changes to solidify his regime-change, but at the same time showed less interest in England than in his own native Normandy. Lesyer says that for William, “England was a source of revenue, no more, no less.”
Although subsequent monarchs were somewhat better on establishing positive relations with their English subjects, the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 quickly led to the growth of his saintly cult and restarted pro-English views that had largely laid underground for the previous decades. Leyser makes a point of noting that it is “hard to find any English king who inspired affection,” and while countries like France produced hagiographies for some of their rulers, this did not exist in England.
Leyser argues that it was also during this period that as the story of King Arthur became popularized by writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, he began to be seen as the ideal king, who would return and right all the wrongs imposed on the English people – and that these wrongs often were committed by the present-day kings. For Leyser, nationalist sentiment emerged in opposition to the crown, with King Arthur one of the main representatives of these views.
With this in mind, it is not surprising that many English monarchs were lukewarm to depicting themselves as a new Arthur, and it was during the reign of Edward III that another English hero was given more prominence – St.George, a soldier from late antiquity who became the focus of several hagiographic legends. King Edward did much boost the figure of St.George, as well as that of the Virgin Mary. He tied the fortunes of the Plantagenet family to these two saints, and used their cults to promote his own rule.
Leyser concludes by noting that by the late Middle Ages it was St.George who became the leading symbol of the English nation, giving “a crippling blow on Arthur, from which he never recovered.”
In an interview with Medievalists.net afterwards, Leyser says she wanted to research this area because of her own interest in medieval nation-building and hagiography. Lesyer is well-known among medieval scholars, especially for her books Hermits and the New Monasticism: A Study of Religious Communities in Western Europe, 1000-1150 and Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England 450-1500.