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In Search of the Once and Future King: The Soul of Chivalry

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. 

A devoted adherent of gallantry and the chivalric code, Edward III became to his subjects and contemporaries the epitome of the warrior-king. A ruler seemingly cast in the same cc as Richard I and Edward I and above all others, Arthur. Edward’s reign, filled as it was with martial exploits and a carefully curated campaign of self-mythologizing, forged an association between kingship and the practice of chivalric excellence which has yet to fully dissipate. Edward, fastidiously adorned in the trappings and iconography of the Arthurian romances and a near-universally celebrated aristocratic cult of chivalry, cut an undeniable dashing figure at the feast table or upon the battlefield, even as his armies cut down dashing figures across France.

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Waging war cruel and sharp on a scale and intensity seldom seem within medieval Europe, in pursuit of his dynastic claims, the king’s attempts to fund his ruinously expensive wars by capitalizing upon England’s importance in the wool trade raised high the foundations of what would one day become the mighty edifice of the English Parliament. In order to, both persuade parliament to acquiesce to this heavy program of taxation and raise an army capable of challenging the might of France, Edward had to ignite his subject’s enthusiasm for what was essentially a private dynastic enterprise. The question of national identity in the Middle Ages, of the interplay between states, governance, cultures and polities is a complex and anachronistic one, couched as it is in terminology and concepts far removed from the medieval experience. The lines were blurred, categories both ill-fitting and permeable while the edges are seldom where you would expect.

In general, it is far more useful and historically critical to think in terms of networks of political, dynastic and personal affinities and obligations. After all, despite shades of regional variance, the aristocracy of medieval Europe shared a common culture of which the Arthurian legends and romance literature formed a significant component. Suffice to say for our purposes that Edward III came to the throne in 1327 at a time in which people in England were becoming increasingly aware of the overlap between their ruler’s domains and historical precedents and increasingly predisposed to defining themselves against distinct others.

The coronation of Edward III depicted in the Chronicles of Froissart – Bibliothèque nationale de France. Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal. Ms-5187 réserve fol. 10r

The reign of Edward III fed this hitherto unarticulated upswell of feeling in the most effective manner possible, with glory and victory; the very stuff that glittered so beguiling amidst the gleaming crests and spearpoints of the Arthurian romance.  We are the English, the message rang out, and we are a fearsome and mightily people just as we were of old. The king took a long and winding path to this summit of propaganda.

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Born into a culture in the grips of a generation-long passion for romance literature, Edward first sort to mobilize support from his aristocratic subordinates and allies through the adoption of chivalric and Arthurian iconography. His experiences and the demands of decades of war and pandemic eventually saw the adaptation of this strategy as the king’s utilization of Arthurian legend which became increasingly embedded in its context and resonance within the British Isles. Edward III first emulated the heroes of the Arthurian romances, progressing to bending its imagery to better reflect and support his own ambitions before finally breaking down and stripping it for its component parts.

Born in 1312, Edward was, as the eldest son and heir of Edward II and Queen Isabella, herself the daughter of Philip IV of France, the beneficiary of an unusually glamorous royal pedigree.  He succeeded to the throne as a minor in highly unusual circumstances in 1327 at the absolute nadir of English royal power and authority. Edward II did not on reflection have an entirely stable or prosperous reign. While the king’s character and personal culpability in events are the subjects of much historical debate and speculation, it is undeniable that his reign saw a number of military setbacks and periods of pronounced tension and conflict with elements of the nobility. The last of these rebellions, abetted to a degree by the French, was led by the king’s own wife, Queen Isabella, and her political and romantic partner, the prominent marcher lord, Roger Mortimer. Isabella, Roger and their coterie of allies swiftly captured Edward II, forcing the king to abdicate the throne to his young son before whisking him off to imprisonment and an ambiguous but no doubt nasty doom.

Still several years from maintaining his majority, Edward III served as a puppet ruler for his mother and Mortimer, his new guardian. This threw the three of them in a complicated and mutually dangerous position, a situation which was only made worse when Edward was forced to do homage to the King of France for Gascony and sign a humiliating peace treaty with the Scots.

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Growing up within the royal court, Edward could not have helped but be intimately aware of Arthurian romance literature which was at once entertainment and a model for the aristocracy of medieval Europe. Nevertheless despite this familiarity, in a strange twist of fate, one of the king’s earliest and most substantive confirmed engagements with the Arthurian tradition and pageantry of conspicuous and cultivated chivalry came at an event meant to glorify and elevate Mortimer. Just as his grandfather had done during the reign of Edward I, the Anglo-Cambrian Roger sort to reap personal and political capital from his familial and regional associations with Arthur by hosting a highly fashionable and lavish Round Table Tournament. Intended to empathize his connections and parallels with the legendary king, the tournament was held at Wigmore in 1329 and like all examples of Round Table Tournaments were replete with carefully choregraphed pageantry, Arthurian imagery and reenactments.

At some stage during the proceedings, Roger presented the king with a gift, a chalice decorated with the attributed arms of one of Arthur’s knights, Sir Lionel. Even after a decade or more of ruling in his own right, Edward III clearly felt some form of affinity with Lionel, a figure plucked straight from the pages of Arthurian romance literature. Edward masqueraded or roleplayed as Lionel during two Round Table Tournaments he sponsored and organized in 1333 and 1342. Moreover, while Edward shared his name with his eldest son and heir, he named his second son Lionel for his paragon of the Arthurian romances. Edward’s increasingly hostile relationship with the unpopular Mortimer and the dramatic conclusion of their pseudo familial relationship strongly suggests that this gift was informed by an existing interest rather than directly inspiring the king’s identification with the legendary knight.

It is a matter of considerable interest that the young king draws only cursory associations between himself and King Arthur, instead preferring to participate in proceedings garbed as a mere knight. Besides the ever-present possibility of a simple whim, possible reasons for this decision can be found in both in the evolving substance and form of Arthurian romance literature itself. As a relative of Lancelot and Bors, Lionel was a member of a somewhat ill-defined royal dynasty within France; a piece of symbolism which perhaps had some appeal to Edward who was himself the grandson of a French king and would take on new significance in his wars to claim the French throne.

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A second aspect to consider is that as the Matter of Britain, that portion of romance literature dedicated to the stories of Arthur and the chivalry infused pseudo-history of Britain, grew, it began to incorporate new original characters whose adventures were grafted onto the existing legend. This process of expansion and innovation by contemporary authors pushed Arthur into a position closely analogous to that occupied by Charlemagne in the Matter of France. More often than not, Arthur’s role in the story was one of liege and quest giver, a wise if somewhat aged and sedentary figure who acknowledges and rewards the efforts of a brave new generation of knights. Edward, in associating himself with the dynamic figure of Lionel during his early reign, was signaling that he was an active and engaged participant in martial and chivalric culture, a knight first and a statesman second.

Edward demonstrated his commitment and enthusiasm for such bold action, flavored with youthful enthusiasm and the sensibilities of Romance literature, in 1330 when he disposed of his guardian. For all its splendor, the Wigmore tournament had done little to increase Roger Mortimer’s popularity. Indeed, the subtext of the event was so obvious and nakedly ambitious to his peers that he was roundly mocked for presumptuous and vainglorious behavior. Worse still, Roger’s failure to secure victory over the Scots and England’s rapidly deteriorating military position made him unpopular, a deficiency he exacerbated by pursuing vendettas against former or potential rivals.

With a considerable flair for the dramatic, the young king, alongside a small number of his friends and retainers, ambushed Mortimer in Nottingham Castle, informing his guardians he would assume the reins of power ahead of schedule. Mortimer was hanged, the death of a common criminal, while Isabella was temporarily imprisoned until tempers cooled and her son’s grip on power was more secure.  The coup was met with almost universal acclaim and support by both the nobility and wider population.

Despite Edward’s own preference for Sir Lionel, he was hailed as a second Arthur in the Bridlington Chronicle amongst other places. This comparison between the still teenage King and the archetypical hero was echoed again in 1333 in the aftermath of the Battle of Halidon Hill in which Edward and his ally, the Scottish claimant Edward Balliol, defeated an army attempting to relieve the siege of the then occupied Berwick-upon-Tweed. These comparisons make clear that Edward was far from alone in his enthusiasm for romance literature. The glories of the past, albeit an invented one, have always held a considerable appeal. Whilst Edward went to great lengths to make political capital through his self-identification as a chivalric figure in the model of the heroes of contemporary romance literature, the association between Edward and the heroes of Britain’s pseudo-political past was one eagerly accepted and even abetted by his subjects.

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This and the particular political and historical resonance the Matter of Britain had within England is well attested to through the proliferation a subgenre of Arthurian infused political prophecy during this period.  A heady mix of political history laced with mysticism and outright prophecy, in such works as the Prophecies of Merlin and the Last Kings of England, amongst other works foretold of England’s triumph against its foes. Through references to his predecessors and his birth at Windsor, they inferred that Edward would be the king to make it happen. Such claims persisted long after the temporary and ephemeral nature of Edward’s triumph against a singular Scottish army, which had first inspired commentators, become clear.

In 1333, Edward emulated his grandfather and namesake, Edward I, when he visited the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere at Glastonbury with his wife and fellow chivalric enthusiast, Countess Philippa of Hainault. However, despite Edward’s clear dedication and appreciation of the genre, if not the particulars of the Arthurian cult, he ordered that the site be searched for the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea who was also associated with the abbey.

Ever since the Conqueror had raised high the papal banner and crossed the channel in 1066, the kings of England had been posed with a thorny dilemma. In England, the vast royal demesne they had carved out for themselves and the formidable suite of royal privileges and powers they had assiduously gathered made the kings’ hugely powerful. While their authority was frequently contested or questioned by the fractious and prideful nobility, often arising at times of dynastic friction or conflict, their material and martial resources far outstripped those of even their mightiest vassals. The kings of England, then, were masters of a realm that was in many ways more organized, centralized and thus taxable than its contemporaries.

However, the ancestral heartlands of these Anglo-Norman and later Angevin monarchs lay within France, making them theoretically, at least, vassals of the French King. The various kings of England adopted a range of different strategies in their attempts to circumvent the legal and feudal obligations they owed their French counterparts, even as they vied with them for supremacy. Generally, this program of political obfuscation involved sending their sons to represent them, securing the family’s dynastic claims while shielding the king from actual commitment. This policy of artfully constructed bad faith negotiations was predicated in large part on the use of naked force but had becoming increasingly unsustainable as the kings of France steadily consolidated power, eventually growing to eclipse their English rivals.

In 1206, King John lost his ancestral duchy of Normandy, marking the breaking of Plantagenet power on the continent and leaving his descendants hard pressed to maintain their holdings in Gascony and Aquitaine. When Edward III, hungry for the plaudits of military victory, was threatened with this same dilemma, he hit upon an innovative if wildly ambitious solution, he would simply become the king of France. As touched upon earlier, Edward had at his mother and Mortimer insistence did homage for Gascony to his uncle Charles IV. When Charles died without male issue in 1328, the French crown passed to a cousin of his, Philip VI who while more distantly related to the Capetians than Edward, was an infinitely more acceptable candidate to the French nobility than an English teenager. At the time neither Edward nor his guardians were in a position to object but when in 1337 Philip declared his intention to confiscate the Duchy of Aquitaine, Edward countered by advancing his maternally sourced claim to the kingdom of France. The result was the sporadic burst of intensive campaigning, bloodshed and intergenerational grudges known as the Hundred Year War.

While retaining Aquitaine and gaining the French throne was undoubtedly motivation enough, the Arthurian legends provided a parallel, if not inspiration, for Edward’s wars in France. The legendary king was believed to have waged his own war upon the continent against the Roman Imperator, Lucius Tiberius, who sought to extract tribute from Arthur and his continental allies. By 1338, Edward was devoting much of his time to the quagmire that was the war in France and an ever-increasing portion of his country’s wealth to a ruinously expensive system of alliances, in which he essentially funded their ongoing but far from decisive participation in the war.

That year, he enacted a political and administrative reorganization which would stamp the substance of the Matter of Britain onto the map of England, making his eldest son the duke of the newly created Duchy of Cornwall. The creation of England’s first duchy was a deliberate attempt to articulate parity with France, demonstrating that England could support the dignity of a duke. Cornwall was chosen not only because of the long royal connection of the former earldom but for its strong Arthurian associations. Arthur’s parents, Igraine and Uther, met under dubious circumstances at Tintagel castle in Cornwall. The region also appears in the Matter of Britain as the domain of the Trojan warrior, Corineus, who was rewarded with its rulership by Brutus, Britain’s legendary founder after he drove out the last of the giants and bested their king in single combat.

Another dramatic and ambitious instance of Edward III calling upon the forms and imagery of Arthurian romance literature to support and facilitate his political and military ambitions came in 1344 with the formation of the Order of the Round Table. By 1344 with the alliance system modified and the king’s latest military reforms bearing fruit, the war was going significantly better for Edward who oversaw the creation of the Order in the wake of a moderately successful campaign in Brittany. Announced at the height of a magnificent weeklong tournament held at the King’s birthplace and favorite residence, Windsor, the king declared the formation of the order in a ritual witnessed by a great gathering of the nobility of England and representatives of his major allies. This grand gesture wreathed in chivalric and Arthurian symbolism was meant to impress upon those present the solemnity and magnitude of the events unfolding before them, a spectacle meant to awe its participants and bind them to the new order.

Round Table in the Grand Hall, Winchester, England, United-Kingdom – photo by Christophe Finot / Wikimedia Commons

The presence of so many aristocratic ladies at the tournament and their inclusion in the ceremony was far from a coincidence, as women both enjoyed and played a vital role in contemporary romance literature and the rituals that emulated it, serving as the witnesses and arbiters of chivalric deeds.

This new order of knighthood was envisaged and presented by Edward III as a direct continuation of the one presided by Arthur and his illustrious knights. In the manner of their legendary fore-bearers, its members were sworn to perform great deeds of martial prowess and conform to the highest codes of conduct in service to their king. But of course, the king they served was Edward not Arthur, and the land upon which they were meant quest and prove themselves was not the monster and foe strewn wilderness of an imagined Britain but the battlefields of France. The Arthurian pedigree of the Order of the Round Table, and the very real military role intended for it, was further demonstrated in its exceptionally large proposed membership of three hundred which is far in excess of later knightly orders. It is, however, the exact number of knights who could be seated in the Franc Palais, an Order of Knighthood ordained directly by God in the medieval epic Perceforest.

In this tale, Perceforest, a legendary knight who served under Alexander the Great and went on to become the first King and founder of England, discovers a hall housing a rounded table of immense beauty, seating up to three hundred knights, created the narrative tells us by God to function as a center for the propagation of chivalry. The orders location at Windsor was another potent symbolic touch since the site was not only believed to have been founded by Arthur and the home of the original round table of legend but was also closely associated in the mind of his subjects with Edward himself.

The establishment of the Order in Windsor served to both strengthen the connection between the current Order of the Round Table and its mystical predecessor and further conflate Edward and Arthur. As such, the king began a magnificent building project at the castle to house the round table and knightly fraternity in a truly monumental setting. Much like the system of alliances it was in part conceived to replace, the Order of the Round Table was ambitious, splendid, expensive and largely ineffective. The Order only met the once, work on its new headquarters was abandoned as a result of the financial strain it imposed.  While its chivalric and Arthurian pedigree, practically groaning under the weight of symbolism, was peerless, the Order of the Round Table was simply too unwieldy, too diffuse and too surreal to function as a meaningful military or political instrument.

This was certainly not the case with Edward’s second attempt to establish a monarchical knightly order, the still extant Order of the Garter. Inspired in part by both the Round Table and the Order of the Band, a knightly order founded by King Alfonso of Castile and encountered there by Edward’s cousin and close confident, Duke Henry Grossmont of Lancaster, while fighting abroad in the King’s service. While still a knightly order meeting at Windsor and concerned with the engagement of its members in chivalric enterprise, the Order of Garter eschewed all but the most incidental trappings of Arthurian romance literature. This new, undoubtedly more successful permutation of a knightly order, was formed in 1348 and informed by Edward’s drastically improved military situation; the battle of Crécy, and the campaign that surrounded it two years later, had been a stunning victory for the English king, cementing his image as a warrior king and stoking his subjects enthusiasm for the war in a way that Edward’s cajoling and experimentation with Arthurian iconography never had.

Edward III as head of the Order of the Garter, drawing c. 1430–40 in the Bruges Garter Book

The gold and blue of the Order’s symbol are likely an allusion of the colours of the French royal heraldry and the Order’s origins and purpose in pursuing the king’s dynastic claims. The use of the garter itself may be inspired by the Order of the Band or form an oblique reference to romance literature with a similar device featuring in the popular Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while the gifting of tokens and items of clothing to knights as a sign of a ladies favor was a common motif within oft emulated tales of courtly love. Whatever the exact circumstances of the Garter’s adoption, its principal value for Edward lay in its role as a symbol of the victorious Crécy Campaign in which it was worn by many participating knights; acting as a symbol of solidarity and belief in a shared cause. The motto of the Order which also hails from Crécy, “Honi soit qui mal y pense” is a challenge to Edward’s critics within England, functioning as a rallying cry to participate in an idealized grand chivalric and eminently justified enterprise. Its adoption by the order echo’s this original purpose while celebrating the great victories which vindicated the king’s efforts.

While the proposed membership of the unwieldy Order of the Round Table was a massive three hundred knights, the Garter was composed of just twenty-six, including the king himself. These original members were drawn from the king’s ardent and most effective supporters, many of whom had already risen high within his service. The overwhelming majority of them had fought for the king at Crécy while the remainder had been blooded elsewhere and entrusted with other theaters and key supporting roles. While the structure and composition of the Order’s chapel, with its two benches, was undoubtedly meant to allow them to function as two jousting teams, one led by the king and another by his heir, its principal role at the time of its founding was a command cadre whose close-knit membership could prosecute the war to claim the French throne. Chivalry was a central aspect of Edward III’s self-image, no matter how many French villages his armies erased, indeed it was an inextricable aspect of warfare, contemporary conceptions of chivalry had after all sprung from the simple question of how to behave in war.

Yet the form and composition of the Order of the Garter testify that the king now regarded organization and dedication as the key to ensuring victory within this chivalric arena. This change in Edward III’s mentality and the increasingly sophisticated ways he conflated the war for his dynastic claims with his subjects’ sense of identity can be further seen in that the Order of the Garter was dedicated not to the legendary largely secular figure of Arthur but to St. George.  One of the medieval era’s great warrior saints, the Order of the Garter’s dedication to St. George was part of Edward’s ultimately successful efforts to build a permanent association between the saint and the kingdom of England. As a saint, capable of intercession directly with God on his followers’ behalf, an association with George provided Edward with a moral imperative and spiritual cover that the memory of Arthur simply couldn’t. What’s more, the adoption of a warrior saint like St George by the English provided them with a contrasting equivalent to the French royals devotion to St Denis. Edward III was, we have seen, a lifelong enthusiast of Arthurian romance literature, yet its very universality and ubiquity within chivalric culture proved to impose limitations upon its political use. Instead Edward, his vassals and subjects took elements of the Arthurian legends, specifically its representation of a glorious and martially literate English past, reconfiguring them into the creation and weaponization of an expressly English identity.

This process as we shall see was to have far-reaching consequences.

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

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