By James Turner
To many Arthur is the Once and Future King, a fabled paragon supported by a cast of heroes whose legends resound down the ages. Yet such tales are neither inert nor inviolate. Instead, they continually adapt to meet the evolving needs and inclinations of the cultures which they travel through. In this series we will examine the changing character of King Arthur and his tales within their historical contexts as we attempt to ascertain what these shifts in the representation of Arthurian Romance can tell us about our past and present.
In Arthur and the distinctive genre of literature that had grown up around the celebration and adaption of his mythical exploits, King Edward I of England found not only a role model but a political tool every bit as puissant as the legendary king himself. Through the conscious emulation and glorification of the Arthurian ideal, King Edward would come within a hair’s breadth of matching Arthur’s legacy, the unification and domination of the British Isles. In chasing the specter of a manifest destiny swathed in the trappings of Arthurian iconography, Edward formalized and enshrined the hegemonic and imperial inclinations of his predecessors, fundamentally altering the way in which England related to its neighbours.
At the time of Prince Edward’s birth in 1239, romance literature and its Arthurian sub-genre in particular had already enjoyed several generations of wild popularity amongst the nobility of Europe. Abetted by wider sociological and cultural shifts, the chivalric romance was already entering its golden age in which its emulation would assume a position of cardinal importance within the aristocracies’ sense of self. Romance Literature and to a large extent the histories it freely intermingled with was, to use the modern parlance, open source. No single element of Arthur’s legends or established pseudo-history was sacrosanct. Everything was fair game for modification to better appeal to the increasingly extravagant tastes of contemporary patrons who incorporated it into a burgeoning and universal chivalric mythos.
Before the benefits of either archaeology or the technology and cultural context necessary for mass communication, more often than not, when asked to envisage the past most people within the middle ages would have pictured a world whose social structures and material culture was very similar to their own. The past was a foreign country but one whose tourist traps and landmarks would have been well known.
In the latter half of the twelfth century, the troubadour Chrétien de Troyes and his contemporaries, working amongst others under the patronage of Edward’s great-grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, conjured stories from the pseudo histories and chronicler traditions of England. In doing so, they added new characters unknown in the earliest Welsh legends, while imposing new structures and conventions which allowed these stories to reflect and expound upon elements of their patron’s aristocratic and chivalric culture. In many ways, this perception was the secret to the romance genres enduring and seminal popularity. Yes, it provided a vicarious adventure to an aristocratic class eager for entertainment and cogent of the advantages of conspicuous consumption and pageantry, but its lauding of chivalric culture, simultaneously mirrored and elevated the world around them. Arthurian Romance literature presented the audience with a fantastic idealized form of chivalric conduct and activity that was at once instantly recognizable and seldom practiced. The future Edward I grew up immersed in a culture that seamlessly blended the precarious and often brutal political realities of the present with a veneration for the heroes of an idealized and glorious past.
Edward’s father, Henry III, has on occasion been characterized as a weak and ineffectual king, possibly for the sake of creating a pleasing symmetry between the two of them and Edward’s own son and grandson. While this criticism is in many ways unfair, it is undeniable that over the course of his long reign, Henry faced several major challenges. The eldest legitimate son of the controversial, to say the least, King John, Henry came to the throne at a young age during a troubled time and was forced to endure a long tense regency under the clique of aristocrats who had repelled the French invasion and pacified the rebellious barons on his behalf. Henry’s enduring mission in life was the elevation of the dignity and splendor of the English throne. Rather than mere vanity, this was a deliberate strategy on Henry’s part, by emphasizing the unique ceremonial status and majesty of the king, and by adopting a largely conciliatory attitude to his nobles, he hoped to make himself ideologically and politically unassailable. Far from a passive figure, Henry instituted an aggressive series of governmental reforms as well as a daring and acquisitive foreign policy. Indeed, Henry III was, if anything, too ambitious with such endeavors spiraling out far beyond his or his councilors ability to control or material support and fund, creating a shortfall which inevitable, not only compromised their effectiveness, but generated further friction.
Just as his son would come to venerate and deliberately associate himself with Arthur, Henry had a royal role model of his own, Edward the Confessor. As a Saint and the last Anglo-Saxon King, after whom Henry named his heir, Edward was revered not just for his piety but as a symbol of unambiguous Englishness who had successfully reunited a troubled land plagued by war and dissent. While Prince Edward’s father worked to co-opt the Confessor into a royal cult and replicate his largesse and magnanimity, his heir pursued the more martial ethos and chivalric enthusiasm that would come to characterize his reign.
Some of Edward I’s first significant appearances, outside of the fragmented records of the royal household, come from the attention given to his youthful participation in the European continent’s flourishing and prestigious tournament scene. After filtering out the gilded obsequiousness offered to any royal heir, it seems clear that Edward performed adequately but not exceptionally during these initial sojourns. Nevertheless, the prince apparently relished his time immersed within knightly and martial culture, returning to the circuit several times and choosing to seek refuge there after the failure of his amateurish attempts at plotting in the build-up to the Second Baronial Rebellion. Edward’s military career began in earnest with the outbreak of the rebellion, where despite his defeat and temporary imprisonment at the battle of Lewes, he quickly emerged as the figurehead and premier field commander of the royalist cause, going on to command the army that crushed the forces of the rebel leader, Simon de Montfort, at Evesham.
Shortly after the conclusion of the rebellion and restoration of royal authority, the prince departed on Crusade. While undoubtedly a reflection of genuine piety, it is interesting to consider Edward’s participation in the context of his conceptions of knighthood and the Arthurian romances which informed them. The institution of knighthood and the chivalric customs which it represented had over the previous two centuries gradually taken on, and become conflated with, a distinctly Christian character. The increasingly elaborate and formalized knighting ceremony, while not strictly proscriptive, now carried many strong religious connotations. Knights were seen as soldiers of Christ, with knighthood nominally requiring its holder to embrace and defend Christian virtues. This prominent religious thread in the representation of knighthood harmonized perfectly with chivalric models of behavior for moving ever in lockstep with the trends and taste of aristocratic society in which the Arthurian Romances incorporated substantial religious symbolism, themes and iconography. The imagined Arthur of the 13th century was like Edward and his contemporary monarchs, a pious and virtuous figure as much because of his military prowess and chivalric exploits as despite them.
When Edward I succeeded to the throne in 1272, this formative interest in the personage of Arthur and wider chivalric culture did not dissipate, instead, if anything, it took on a deeper resonance. Arthur and his ever-increasing cast of knights represented and embodied traits and chivalric virtues such as martial prowess, piety, largesse and fidelity which held considerable value within contemporary society. Now a king, Edward’s legendary predecessor offered a potential model for deed as well as character, while providing a potent source of symbolism for the righteousness and inevitability of his inherited ambitions.
Chrétien de Troyes, his colleagues, and imitators drew their inspiration for the Arthurian Romances from two primary intellectual strains. The first of these was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae which traced the history of Britain through the lives of its legendary kings, all the way back to its alleged founding by Trojan refugees. In compiling his pseudo-historical account, Geoffrey cherry picked and adapted the work of a number of older chroniclers such as the Venerable Bede, Gildas and Nemnius. He used these often disparate monastic sources with, I think it’s safe to assume, considerable aid from his own fertile imagination and dramatic instincts, to sketch a portrait of not just Anglo-Saxon history, but the legendary world of ancient Britain, which their arrival had brought crashing down. The Historia Regum Britanniae which was dedicated to and perhaps sponsored by Henry I’s illegitimate son and righthand man, Earl Robert of Gloucester, was widely distributed and would prove highly influential in both the rise of Arthurian Romance literature and the works of later historians.
The second group of sources that the troubadours called upon were the still extant Welsh myths and folk tales in which Arthur and his companions figured prominently. While stories such as Culhwch and Olwen which included romance, adventure and monster-slaying seem like natural fits for the genre, their essential Welshness and specific cultural context provided a barrier to accessibility. In both chronicles and poems, Arthur’s identity as a Briton or Welshman was a major component of his portrayal but not so the Arthur of the epic romances to come. The authors of the 12th and 13th centuries essentially toned down or cannibalized these elements of his stories in favour of appealing to wider European aristocratic culture through the creation of a universally accessible cult of chivalry.
The Arthurian romances, as disparate and contradictory as they sometimes were, came to be known under the umbrella title, the Matter of Britain. This appellation served as a handy means to distinguish the stories of Arthur and his knights from those concerning the other two great subject matters that dominated the genre, the Matter of Rome and the Matter of France. The Matter of Rome was primarily composed of adaptations of Classical mythology, as well as stories pertaining to the founding and transformation of the Roman Empire, while the Matter of France covered the legends of Emperor Charlemagne and France’s origins. By way of both content and comparison then, the Matter of Britain that Edward I grew up enthralled by had shed much of its Welsh roots, becoming instead about explaining and celebrating the history of a Britain dominated by England and its warrior elite. Arthur’s wars were now fought not just against foreign invaders but against either rebels on the so-called peripheries of the British Isles or corrupt continental powers that challenged the prestige of Arthur’s English court and the safety of his mainland allies. A fictional past warped to better reflect the readers’ presents.
Arthur then was a Briton or Welshman who had been transfigured, as if by magic, into an English king. He was British only in the sense that he was the just and righteous feudal overlord of an English dominated British Isles. That this change occurred alongside the backdrop of a sustained period of conflict between the English and Welsh is, of course, not coincidental. Sometime around 1190, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have made a near-miraculous discovery, the lost tomb of Arthur and Guinevere. The timing of this find is interesting, even beyond the new shrine’s role in restoring the abbey’s flagging fortunes, coming as it did shortly after the death of Edward I’s great-grandfather, the formidable Henry II. Henry had fought two largely inconclusive wars in Wales but had ultimately succeeded in reaching a concordant with the Welsh Princes, even compelling the two most powerful of their number to do him homage, albeit under vague terms. The extension of this period of relative peace in Wales would have been a priority to Henry’s successor, Richard I, who was eager to pacify and secure the borders of his father’s vast domain before his imminent departure on Crusade.
The revelation that Arthur, welsh national hero and the once and future king, was not only verifiably dead but also in English hands, was one that held considerable symbolic significance, given the political context. It is unclear if Richard ever visited the alleged tomb himself, but the king was a noted patron of romance literature and a highly engaged participant in chivalric culture. Richard was certainly aware of the great political utility that could be gained through the careful mobilization of history and the symbolism of the European wide cultural phenomena. Upon arriving in Sicily, which was being used as a staging post by the crusaders, he presented King Tancred with what he claimed was Excalibur, the sword of King Arthur himself.
Edward I, who had after all grown up with stories of Arthur and his Knights that loomed ever larger within the cultural makeup of the aristocracy, deliberately pushed this vague association to its natural conclusion. Edward consciously and conspicuously cultivated an association with the mythical figure of Arthur and the trappings of chivalric culture as a means of simultaneously justifying and abetting his conquests within Britain. Edward’s early reign was spent fighting a brutal series of spiraling wars against the remaining Welsh Princes led by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, which culminated with the conquest and annexation of the country. Having at the cost of much bloodshed and gold finally completed the long-standing Norman ambition to dominate Wales, Edward went to considerable expense and effort to secure his new possession. He did this through a staggering ambitious castle-building program, the imposition of garrisons and English colonists, as well as calling upon the hovering specter of Arthurian mythology.
In 1284, Edward took the crown of the slain Llywelyn and laid it before the shrine of Edward the Confessor, his father’s role model and favoured saint. This dramatic piece of political theater was elevated yet further by Edward’s symbolism laden insistence that Llywelyn’s ancestral coronet was none other than the crown worn by Arthur. The crown’s removal from Wales and presentation before an English royal saint represented more than the simple domination of Wales by the English throne, although that was almost certainly a factor. The unification of this potent symbol of Arthur’s kingship and the widely popular cult of the last Anglo-Saxon king under Edward’s custodianship, drew an implicit link between the three, lending legitimacy to Edward’s claims to be both the rightful overlord of Britain and inheritor of this dual legacy. The Welsh Princes could reputedly trace their lineage back past the pre-Roman kings of Britain to the trojan refugees which legend held had first founded its kingdoms. The Romans own origin myth, of course, held that they too were founded by refugees fleeing the Greek sack of Troy. By inserting himself into this lineage and usurping its symbols for his own use, Edward I was not only justifying his conquest of Wales but positioning himself as the inheritor of an imperial pedigree comparable to that of Rome. Interestingly, this deliberate association between his hegemonic wars within the British Isles and imperial imagery can be seen writ into the stone of the castles he built in his pacification of Wales which incorporate into their design elements taken from both imperial Byzantine architecture and the roman ruins prevalent within the region.
Edward’s strategy to legitimize and further glorify his imperial aspirations through an association with the personage of Arthur and the chivalric virtues he represented within contemporary society can clearly be seen during his visit to Glastonbury in 1284. Edward, accompanied by his wife Eleanor of Castile, organized and presided over a lavish occasion in which amidst much pomp and ceremony, the remains of Arthur and his queen, first rediscovered in the reign of his great uncle, were reinterred in a position of honour at the foot of the abbey’s high altar. While the ceremony no doubt had significant personal resonance for the royal, it also contained a clear and potent political message. King Edward of England, not the remaining Welsh nobility, was the rightful guardian and inheritor of Arthur’s legacy and domains.
Edward also utilized elements of his deliberate association with Arthur’s imperial and chivalric connotations in Scotland. There, Edward first arbitrated the prolonged dynastic dispute over the vacant Scottish throne in an attempt to exercise and gain explicit recognition of his overlordship of Britain, before finally seizing the opportunity presented to him by the squabbling Scottish nobility to simply seize the kingdom. Writing to Pope Nicholas IV, whose legates also participated in the arbitration process, Edward explicitly cites King Arthur as a precedent to justify English overlordship of Scotland. Scotland and its often-contentious relationship with its larger southernly neighbor provides another fascinating, albeit earlier, example of the symbiotic connection between politics and the development of Arthurian romance literature. During the late 12th century, Galloway, then an autonomous and semi-independent entity, began to receive significant representation within works of Arthurian romantic literature at a time in which control of the region was becoming a source of conflict and the subject of a great deal of wrangling between the English and Scottish kings.
Perhaps the grandest and most explicit way in which Edward I sort to mobilize his self-appointed position as Arthur’s heir, to legitimize his imperial ambitions through their conflation with chivalric culture, was the staging of Round Table Tournaments in newly pacified British territories. Bleached of crucial cultural context and with much of their symbolism diluted by the passage of time, the Round Table now seems strange, almost risible affairs. In reality, Round Tables were complex events replete with political and chivalric symbolism. Steeped in the themes and trappings of the Arthurian romances, the participants would masquerade as characters from the stories, often engaging in elaborate role-play. Such events were framed by scenarios derived from the staples of romance literature, incorporating the performance of military and social rituals. Such festivals usually included aristocratic women whose fictional counterparts played a central role within romance literature as the arbiters of, and inspiration for, heroic deeds and chivalric exploits.
Far from the sole preserve of the kings of England, Round Table Tournaments were a European wide phenomenon. Indeed, Edward I may have been initially inspired to host his own version of such an event after his ally and vassal, the marcher lord Roger Mortimer, staged one at Kenilworth in 1279. While he did not attend the tournament personally, Edward, for whom Kenilworth held a special significance for its association with the death of his former nemesis, Simon De Monfort, evidently approved of the event dispatching a generous gift which was presented to Mortimer in the tournament’s opening ceremony. The king’s hosting of events so replete with chivalric and Arthurian themes, first at the traditional Welsh seat of Nefyn in 1284 and then later at the site of his famous victory at Falkirk in 1302, was a conspicuous display of both Edward’s temporal power as well as the chivalric credentials and associations through which he derived legitimacy. Nefyn, in particular, was a site of particular Arthurian significance as it was widely believed that the prophecies of Merlin were first discovered there.
Part of Edward’s enthusiasm for such events was that besides pontificating upon the close association between kingship and chivalric activity, they served a secondary very practical purpose. A long-running issue, which came to a head during the reign of Edward I, was that the gradually shifting underpinnings of the European economy and the ever-increasing cost of properly outfitting knights for war, greatly reduced the number of knights within England. In order to reconstitute and resurrect English chivalry, which the king held was greatly diminished from the glory day of Richard I, not to mention provide a reliable source of heavy cavalry for his frequent war, the king set about harnessing the popularity of Arthurian romance literature as a recruiting tool. Edward passed laws requiring that every Englishman with an annual income above a certain threshold was required to take up the arms of knighthood but such measures on their own were of limited effectiveness. Round Table tournaments and similar, with their lavish pageantry and surreal performative aspects, proved a heady mix that served to engender enthusiasm for chivalric exploits and support for the king’s wars. Often such events culminated in the public swearing of ostentatious and elaborate, but very real, oaths in which those present pledged themselves to certain causes. Edward even went as far as to commission a physical copy of Arthur’s Round Table which became the centerpiece for a number of tournaments and chivalric festivals held at Winchester throughout the late 1280’s and ’90s which often culminated with mass knighting ceremonies.
Edward I in many ways a hard-nosed practical man who built upon his cultures internalized fascination with Arthurian romance literature to legitimize and aid his imperial ambitions through a public emulation and veneration of the legendary king. Yet Arthur and his knights were dynamic figures, the vast canon of their stories and legends even shifting. Even as Arthur settled in his newfound Englishness Edward I’s grandson Edward III and the generations that followed him would begin to interpret and deploy this chivalric oriented mythology in radical new ways.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.
Top Image: King Arthur shown in the Nine Heroes Tapestries, ca. 1400 – image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art