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King Arthur: The Romance of the Past

Why have so many British monarchs found Arthur an attractive leader to imitate? The authenticity of the story of Arthur, whether it be a myth, legend, folktale, or history, is not necessarily relevant in answering this particular question; Arthur’s name and achievements, real or not, were known and believed well enough to have carried great influence throughout the medieval and early modern centuries, especially with regards to British monarchs and their ideas of kingship. This essay will focus specifically on how Arthurian legends impacted the ideals of kingship and rule in the reigns of Edward I, Edward III, Henry VII, and James I. Edward I was the first to understand just how useful Arthurian legends were as propaganda, especially during his campaigns in Wales and Scotland during the latter half of his reign.[1] Edward III was born into a prophesy which coincided with Arthur’s achievements, seeing Edward as the destined Arthur, returned as “the once and future king.”[2] Henry VII traced his lineage back to Arthur, and claimed to be Arthur returned in the form of a descendant, in order to secure his claim to the English throne during the War of the Roses and throughout his reign.[3] James I was associated with Arthur, not only because of his Tudor and Stuart blood, but mainly because he united England, Wales, and Scotland, an accomplishment prophesied to occur during the reign of the returned Arthur.[4] Prophesies of Arthur’s return and the increasing documentation of Arthur’s life and legend helped spread his influence and allowed for monarchs to manipulate the legend for their own benefit.

     Arthur was a figure that subjects both wanted and loved. The first account of Arthur’s character and his accomplishments as king was told through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s biography, Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain), published in the early twelfth century; the historicity of which has been subject to debate through the ages.[5] However, the story of Arthur continued to be told through different books and poems that emerged through the centuries, becoming more extravagant with each publication. Authors portrayed Arthur to be everything a successful king should be: wise, generous, kind, forgiving, trustworthy, and loyal.[6] It is not surprising that other kings would desire to be associated with him. Arthur was seen in two different ways – as a human being and as an image.[7] As a human, he is described as almost perfect: “he rarely reacts in anger, other than righteous indignation . . . [and] his prestige is never – or almost never – compromised by his personal weaknesses.”[8] As an image, he represents the ideals of Camelot and the Round Table, such as knighthood, equality, and chivalry.[9] His status as a great warrior, uniting Britain and conquering Europe, was both admired and feared by everyone who knew the legend. Even his death was better understood to people as more of an “absence” though the folkloric idea that, “he was not dead, only sleeping, and would come again.”[10] Arthur’s return would restore peace to society in a time of great unrest. This widely-held belief that King Arthur would come again created a debate over the timing and circumstances of his return, and if he would return as the same fifth or sixth century king, or in a new form through his descendants.

     Edward I was the first king to use the Arthurian legend to his advantage during his reign, yet while he was interested in Arthur’s past, this does not prove to be a dominating influence in his kingship.[11] In 1278, during his Easter court, he ordered that the supposed tombs at Glastonbury of Arthur and his wife, Guinevere, be opened and that the bodies be reburied in the tradition of the saints, but his intentions in doing this are not explicitly clear.[12] Edward did not rely on Arthurian propaganda to secure his reign in England, but he knew when and how to use the legend to his advantage when dealing with the Welsh and Scottish. In 1277, for example, Edward I justified his defeat of the Welsh by claiming that the English were the legitimate successors of Arthur, who ruled over united England, Scotland, and Wales. Edward’s hope was that the Welsh people would not rebel against their new English king if he demonstrated a hereditary right to his claim.[13] The legend of Arthur was also used in defending England’s actions in Scotland to the Pope in 1301: Edward claimed to be uniting the two just as Arthur had done.[14] Scotland did not approve of this assertion, which led to an increased dislike of the legend of Arthur and its manipulation by the English; however, the discontentment with the English use of the legend does not mean that they did not have their own version of Arthur’s legend included within their history.[15]

     Edward I was not thought to be Arthur returned as “the once and future king”; he simply used the Arthurian legend as propaganda when necessary, though some aspects of their achievements and successes did overlap. Edward I’s kingship especially differed from the stories of Arthur in the area of counsel; Edward did not take into consideration the counsel he was offered as much as Arthur had in his supposed reign.[16] Edward demonstrated his capability as a king through his control over others. His mastery could be seen through the large number of knights in his court, requiring chivalric distinction to be part of his version of the Round Table.[17] He dominated the nobles, but Edward was not complicated with insensible demands; his interests in pastimes and war were shared by the nobility, allowing for some sense of comradeship.[18] Edward’s military prestige also allowed him to fill the void of power on the European continent left by Louis IX and the Hohenstaufen, giving Edward a reputation of authority similar to Arthur’s status.[19] “Successful kingship required a blend of the authoritarian and the enabler and . . . Edward I, like all other successful medieval English kings, possessed both qualities that were the essence of strong kingship.”[20] Edward may not have accomplished everything he had planned by his death, but he did achieve a great deal and was prepared to hand his legacy over to his son, Edward II. Unfortunately for Edward I, his son did not achieve his success, and it would be Edward I’s grandson, Edward III, who would achieve a similar status of greatness to compare not only to his grandfather, but also to the legendary King Arthur.

     Unlike his grandfather, Edward III was born to fulfill a great destiny, prophesied to be Arthur reborn. Christened by the visiting papal legate, Cardinal Nourvel, in Windsor, his birth fulfilled a part of the “Prophesy of the Six Kings,” of which Edward III was the fourth king. Each of these kings, the six after King John, was represented by a beast, and Edward was given the boar, the same animal that characterized King Arthur.[21] This “Prophesy of Six Kings” was heavily influenced by the Arthurian legend: the prophesy of “the boar who will come out of Windsor” was to not only unite the British Isles, but also conquer Europe and become the Holy Roman Emperor, similar to Arthur’s achievements as a warrior.[22] Thus Edward was raised knowing his English subjects anticipated greatness and believed his future was destined to be like Arthur’s; by the end of his reign, he is believed to have succeeded in becoming the great king he was expected to be, though not without a few major mistakes along the way.

     Edward III’s reign earned him the status of a great warrior leader.[23] His understanding of kingship cannot be separated from the influence of Arthur’s legend. His view of absolute royalty came from the influence of previous kings, especially Arthur.[24] Edward was seen as the new Arthur, but he also treated his knights in comparison to the Knights of the Round Table.[25] Part of fulfilling his destiny as the new Arthur depended on his knights and the role they played; he needed a small, strong group of knights to rely on, which he attempted to form from the start of his reign, yet these men would have to prove their worth to be part of his “Round Table.”[26] Edward’s knights, however, were to be part of the Order of the Garter, created in 1349, which delivered a very different message than that of the Round Table. The Order of the Garter was portrayed as an exclusive club, rather than promoting the equality represented in the time of Arthur’s knights.[27] Edward III, who is noted for his ability to create camaraderie between his knights, spent less time with them than Edward I had done with his, and Edward I was known for his dominating control over the nobles.[28] Katherine J. Lewis writes that “Edward III’s outstanding kingship achieved wide currency during the fifteenth century and he became the epitome of both war craft and statesmanship whom later kings sought to resemble and against whom their actions were measured”;[29] which presents the conclusion that Edward III did achieve his destiny with a status similar, if not equal, to Arthur’s: by combining chivalric adventuring with military leadership, cultural patronage, and political responsibility, he brought together all the real and imagined virtues of a Christian king. It made kingship a very demanding art, and one in which a man past middle age could not realistically hope to succeed, but he demonstrated how successful it could be.[30]

     Edward’s achievements, including a new form of kingship, the preservation of peace in England, the rise of England’s international status, a new method of warfare, and the development of Parliament, all gave credence to Edward’s destiny prophesied at birth.[31] Arthur’s influence allowed for Edward’s many accomplishments, but it produced the struggle to create a balance between the mythical expectations Edward was born into and what was realistically achievable.

     Edward III was essentially the last king to rule for a long period of time until the reign of Henry VII, as the War of the Roses began shortly after Edward’s death at the end of the fourteenth century. Henry VII is often portrayed as having used Arthurian influence the most out of the medieval and early modern British monarchs. As he established his kingship in the middle of the fifteenth century, during the instability of the War of the Roses, he needed additional support for his ascension to the throne, and drawing on the renown of Arthur gave strength to his claim. Henry linked his ancestry back to Arthur, showing he was not simply another usurper of the crown, but rather the rightful heir.[32] He had “reinterpreted the legend so that not Arthur himself but his descendant, in the person of Henry VII, was said to have returned at a time of need (the War of the Roses) to restore stability to Britain.”[33] By ascending the throne as an Arthurian figure, Henry took upon himself the responsibility of restoring stability to Britain, and, to do so successfully, Henry needed to prevent any other claimants from reaching the throne, provide a male heir that would inherit the throne in smooth transition, and ensure that the heir would be protected from any threats or assassination attempts.

     Henry VII and his government facilitated the transition from the medieval to the early modern era. As an Arthurian figure, Henry proclaimed his desire to restore stability and establish social reforms; after all, the legendary Arthur was deemed to return at a time of great turmoil.[34] Henry commenced his reign by changing governmental structure. At the beginning of Henry’s reign, “Lancastrian England was ruled by a substantially – and necessarily – public authority,”[35] but there was a significant transformation in the balance of power by 1509. Henry turned the public nature of government into a more private system with very little obstruction and difficulty.[36] This smooth transition was arguably a result of Henry’s claim to be Arthur’s descendant: for the English people would see Henry as more of a liberator of the War of the Roses than a participant in the competition for the throne. But it may also have been a result of the people’s desperation to end the century-long War of the Roses.[37] Henry’s kingship did not line up with Arthur’s in the area of military action and conquest; Arthur strove to establish himself as a supreme warrior, whereas Henry would try to avoid war when possible, and only participate when absolutely necessary, focusing instead on restoring England to its former glory.

     To further this “Tudor Myth”, Henry named his first son Arthur, with the hope of providing Britain with a second King Arthur in name and heritage.[38] However, these plans failed with the death of Prince Arthur at age fifteen, which left the throne to his younger brother, the future King Henry VIII. The Tudor employment of the Arthurian legend became extremely popular in British society; however, James Merriman argues its influence in Tudor ideals of kingship would fade with each monarch:

     In domestic politics, the claim that the Tudors carried in their veins Arthur’s Celtic blood, the common blood of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, was used to further hopes, finally accomplished under James I, for a unified British nation. Such political uses of Arthurian legend decline once the Tudors were firmly established.[39]

     Henry VIII would make little use of his Arthurian lineage, except when using Arthur’s independent empire as support for his separation from Rome during the beginning of the Reformation.[40] The Arthurian-Tudor connection would not be revived until the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign, at the end of the sixteenth century, when she used the legends to validate colonial intentions within the British Empire.[41]

     James VI of Scotland became the next monarch after Elizabeth, because she left no heir, making him James I of England at the start of the seventeenth century. James I was seen not as an Arthurian figure, but rather as Arthur himself, simply because James was successful in something that very few could have achieved: he fulfilled Merlin’s prophecy by uniting Scotland with England and Wales without a bloody war.[42] Though his image as Arthur only lasted during his early years as king of England, he did try to imitate Arthur, especially in his treatment of his knights.[43] But James lost any support he gained from his Arthurian connections when he focused on achieving the divine rights of kings.[44] James’s idea of kingship, that the king was emperor of his own kingdom, served as the catalyst for debates over absolutism and ancient constitutions.[45] The area of counsel was one that varied extremely between James and Arthur. James did not appeal to any counsel other than God, for he saw God as his only judge;[46] Arthur, however, allowed his “concerns for peace and justice balance his warlike traits, and promote equality and harmony.”[47] James’s kingship emphasized his knowledge above everyone else’s, not for scholarship’s sake, but in order to advise, counsel, and make decisions.[48] James varies the most from Arthur in the sense that he focused more on his rights as king in comparison with the chivalric actions of Arthur, whose primary focus was on his people and their needs.

     Each of these kings are specifically mentioned in this essay for their Arthurian influence as well as their different methods of kingship. Edward I ruled by mastery, controlling his knights and nobles, while attempting to unite all of Britain.[49] Edward III used a method of chivalric kingship in order to establish the notion of monarchy under a new set of ideals such as leadership, spirituality, patronage, propaganda, and parliamentary authority.[50] Kingship under Henry VII transformed the public nature of politics into a more privatized system.[51] Obtaining a new kingdom after reigning in Scotland for decades, James I’s ideals of the divine rights of kings became part of the English political world, leading to massive conflicts between future kings and the English Parliament.[52] The legend of King Arthur is an attractive asset that British monarchs used advantageously, whether for personal use or propaganda; it does not need to be proven historically accurate to demonstrate that it had major effects outside of the literary world. By relating themselves to Arthur, these monarchs were able to convey a message not only to the English people, but also to the rest of Britain and Europe: they wished to be perceived as strong, legendary, wise, forgiving, and loyal.[53]

     Arthur’s reputation as a king and warrior, historical or not, has lasted for centuries, feeding the desire of each king to achieve a status equivalent to the eternal legacy of the great King Arthur. These kings defended their actions with the claim that they came to fulfil the prophesy of Arthur’s return. The legend of Arthur proves to benefit British kings as it adds to their reputations, defends their actions, and increases their influence: not only in their kingdoms, but also in the European world.


[1] Juliet Vale, “Arthur in English Society.” In The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Life and Literature, edited by W.R.J. Barron (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), 87.

[2] Ian Mortimer, The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 59.

[3] Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 43.

[4] James Douglas Merriman, The Flower of Kings: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in England between 1485 and 1835 (Lawrence, Manhattan, and Wichita: The University Press of Kansas, 1973), 49.

[5] Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia (New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996), 18.

[6] Ibid.,17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] O.J. Padel, “Arthur.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Online edition edited by Lawrence Goldman, May 2007, accessed 22 March 2015.

[11] Michael Prestwich, Edward I (London: Metheun, 1988), 121.

[12] Ibid., 120-121.

[13] James P. Carley, “Arthur in English History.” In The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Life and Literature, edited by W.R.J. Barron (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), 50.

[14] Prestwich, Edward I, 121.

[15] Flora Alexander, “Late Medieval Scottish Attitudes to the Figure of King Arthur: A Reassessment.” Anglia – Zeitschrift für englische Philologie 1975, no. 93 (1975): 17-34, accessed 21 March 2015.

[16] Andrew M. Spencer, Nobility and Kingship in Medieval England: The Earls and Edward I, 1277-130. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 60.

[17] Vale, “Arthur in English Society,” 165.

[18] Spencer, Nobility and Kingship, 94.

[19] Vale, “Arthur in English Society,” 165.

[20] Spencer, Nobility and Kingship, 136.

[21] Mortimer, The Perfect King, 20-21.

[22] Ibid., 21.

[23] Katherine J. Lewis, Kingship and Masculinity in Late Medieval England (London and New York: Routledge, 2013), 1.

[24] Mortimer, The Perfect King, 88.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 89.

[27] Vale, “Arthur in English Society,” 193.

[28] Spencer, Nobility and Kingship, 49-50.

[29] Lewis, Kingship and Masculinity, 2.

[30] Mortimer, The Perfect King, 395.

[31] Ibid., 397.

[32] Merriman, The Flower of Kings, 35.

[33] Lupack, The Oxford Guide, 43.

[34] Padel, “Arthur.”

[35] John L. Watts, “‘A Newe Ffundacion of is Crowne’: Monarch in the Age of Henry VII.” In The Reign of Henry VII: Proceedings of the 1993 Harlaxton Symposium, edited by Benjamin Thompson (Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995), 35.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Lupack, The Oxford Guide, 43.

[39] Merriman, The Flower of Kings, 35.

[40] Ibid., 36.

[41] Ibid., 35.

[42] Ibid., 49.

[43] Ibid., 50.

[44] Ibid., 50.

[45] John Cramsie, Kingship and Crown Finance Under James VI and I, 1603-1625 (Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society and Boydell Press, 2002), 40-41.

[46] Ibid., 42.

[47] Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, 16.

[48] Cramsie, Kingship and Crown Finance, 43.

[49] Spencer, Nobility and Kingship, 35.

[50] Mortimer, The Perfect King, 395.

[51] Watts, “‘A Newe Ffundacion of is Crowne,’” 35.

[52] Cramsie, Kingship and Crown Finance, 41.

[53] Lewis, Kingship and Masculinity, 2.

 

References

 

Alexander, Flora. “Late Medieval Scottish Attitudes to the Figure of King Arthur: A Reassessment.” Anglia – Zeitschrift für englische Philologie 1975, no. 93 (1975): 17-34, accessed 21 March 2015.

Carley, James P. “Arthur in English History.” In The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Life and Literature, edited by W.R.J. Barron, 47-57. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999.

Cramsie, John. Kingship and Crown Finance Under James VI and I, 1603-1625. Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society and Boydell Press, 2002.

Lacy, Norris J. (ed.). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996.

Lewis, Katherine J. Kingship and Masculinity in Late Medieval England. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Lupack, Alan. The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Merriman, James Douglas. The Flower of Kings: A Study of the Arthurian Legend in England between 1485 and 1835. Lawrence, Manhattan, and Wichita: The University Press of Kansas, 1973.

Mortimer, Ian. The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation. London: Jonathan Cape, 2006.

Padel, O.J. “Arthur.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, edited H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition edited by Lawrence Goldman, May 2007, accessed 22 March 2015.

Prestwich, Michael. Edward I. London: Metheun, 1988.

Spencer, Andrew M. Nobility and Kingship in Medieval England: The Earls and Edward I, 1277-1307. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Vale, Juliet. “Arthur in English Society.” In The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Life and Literature, edited by W.R.J. Barron, 185-196. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999.

Watts, John L. “‘A Newe Ffundacion of is Crowne’: Monarch in the Age of Henry VII.” In The Reign of Henry VII: Proceedings of the 1993 Harlaxton Symposium, edited by Benjamin Thompson, 31-53. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.