I’m in the midst of preparing a lecture on the use (and abuse) of King Arthur by twelfth- and thirteenth-century historians in Britain. This has been a real privilege, since a desire to study the ‘history’ behind the myth was one of the reasons I chose my particular undergraduate degree and institution, more years ago than is generally mentioned in polite society. As a bright-eyed eighteen year old, I envisaged my future as revolutionizing the understanding of this murky figure. Ah, the naïvety of youth! Somehow, despite being older and considerably more cynical now (if not necessarily very much wiser), being invited to take on this task feels like ‘arriving’, or at the very least, achieving a long-forgotten goal. It’s been a fair while since I considered the literature on this topic, so I thought a compilation here of what I see as the most pertinent and recent arguments would be a useful exercise for me, if not of gripping relevance to the rest of you. You have my permission to look away if you so desire.

Speaking of the abuse of history, this is *not* the King Arthur I’m going to be discussing…

My task in this guest lecture is to fill in “what happens to Arthur in (medieval) historians’ work after Geoffrey of Monmouth”, and I’m planning to adopt an essentially chronological structure on the day. In this forum, however, I’m going to begin from the other end with where Arthur and Arthurian history ended up in Edwardian times, since we’re all about the thirteenth century here.

…nor, for that matter, is this…

The pendulum of opinion concerning Edward I’s identification with Arthur has swung between two poles since the early 20th century: what we might call the romantic and pragmatic. R.S. Loomis, himself a noted Arthurian devotee, long ago took issue with what he saw as Sir Maurice Powicke’s excessively political reading of Edward’s understanding of Arthur.[1] Powicke had commented, as if in passing, that Edward’s procession to Glastonbury and the pageantry that attended his, and Queen Eleanor’s, ceremonial disinterment and reburial of the remains of Arthur and Guinevere was intended as a demonstration of the subjugation of Wales. Loomis argued that, instead, Edward was genuinely a devotee of Arthurian literature, and that, at the very least, “sentiment too was involved”.[2] I think it would be fair to call this the minority view. Rather more recently, Michael Prestwich assembled the evidence for Edward’s association with Arthur and found it to be unexceptional and unfocused: part of his general embeddedness in the culture of chivalry, but not constituting a particular dedication to an Arthurian cult.[3] Rather curiously, however, Prestwich went on to declare that it was “not clear what [Edward’s] purpose was” in going to Glastonbury in 1278.[4]

I find myself unable to agree with this eminent historian here, and happily I am in recent and respectable company. As Marc Morris neatly put it in 2009, expanding on Powicke’s suggestion, “Edward came [to Glastonbury] not to praise Arthur, but to bury him.”[5] In the aftermath of the first Welsh War (1277), and in particular the capitulation of Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, he was enacting two important messages. First, he had (or so he thought) finally and totally subjugated the Welsh. Second, Arthur was dead and there was no possibility of his return to lead a British (i.e. Welsh) counter-insurgency against the Anglo-Normans. Arthur was so dead, in fact, that his bones were wrapped in silk and sealed with Edward’s own seal.[6] The symbolism of this act was simultaneously authoritative, dominant, and final (even though, in the event, it turned out not to be). The fact that as an aid to ‘devotion’, the king caused ‘Arthur’s’ skull, separated from the other remains, to be left on permanent display reinforces the notion that he wanted irrefutably to establish his demise. Edward wasn’t trying to set himself up as a new Arthur, or even simply his admirer. Instead, I think by this complicated performance he wanted to be understood as superseding the mythical king of the Britons and laying his political ghost to rest.

God only knows what Edward would have made of “Glastonbury” today…

It wont perhaps surprise those of you who know me that I fall fairly firmly in the political Arthur camp of interpretation. This isn’t to say I dispute the possibility that men like Edward I could admire the tales of derring-do that had been spun around Arthur and his knights by this time. It’s just that I don’t think the king generally took his court on a tour of sites of historical curiosity without some grander and ultimately more significant purpose in view than fan tourism. And, from my acquaintance with him, Edward was not the kind of bloke who missed an opportunity to perform a political point in words or deeds. He clearly understood, as not every modern historian has done, that literature can be both entertainment and politics, and that fantasy can be a very serious matter indeed.

In fact, as Morris relates,[7] hardly any of Edward’s public acts and works in Wales were devoid of political symbolism, frequently aimed at reinforcing this same point: Wales’ great and heroic heritage was no longer its own. Insofar as it was permitted to persist, it belonged to the king of England. In 1284, Edward was presented with ‘Arthur’s Crown’, which he had refashioned and given as alms to the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster – appropriating to the centre of English government the most potent known physical symbol of Welsh princedom, just as he would later carry off the Stone of Scone. At Caernarfon in 1283 Edward also ‘discovered’ and translated to the local church the bones of the Emperor Maximus, who Welsh tradition held had seen a magnificent castle at Caernarfon in a dream and brought his legionaries there. Maximus, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, had been the father of Constantine (and therefore the grandfather of the Christian Roman Empire), who had been the father of… you guessed it, Arthur. Morris is not the first to draw attention to the significant symbolism of Edward’s design for Caernarfon castle, with its banded masonry towers, resembling the imperial walls of Contantine’s city. The future Edward II’s birth at Caernarfon in 1284 seems to have been another piece of Anglo-Welsh political theatre with an Arthurian spin: the queen was probably taken deliberately to Caernarfon to give birth, so that this new Edward would become an English avatar for the Emperor of Rome as well as all the ancient glory of the Britons.

So, I will propose to the students, why was Arthur the figure chosen for these manifestations of public and political theatre? This is where thinking about the historians of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and how they used and abused the figure of Arthur really comes into its own. But I think that might have to wait for another post, because I seem to be at risk of getting overly verbose…


[1] R. S. Loomis, ‘Edward I, Arthurian Enthusiast’, Speculum, 28 (1953), 114-27; cf. F. M. Powicke, King Henry III and the Lord Edward, 2 vols. Vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947), p. 724.
[2] Loomis (p. 114).
[3] Michael Prestwich, Edward I, New edn (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 118-121.
[4] Prestwich, p. 120.
[5] Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain (London: Hutchinson, 2008), p. 165.
[6] Morris, pp. 165-66.
[7] For this paragraph, see Morris, pp. 165-93.