Edward III and King Arthur


From the time of Edward I English kings used the legends about King Arthur to bolster their claim to rule all the British Isles. Although Arthur was a British hero, by the thirteenth century he had come to symbolise the English, and the mythology was used, consciously or unconsciously, to unite Britons, Saxons and Normans. King Arthur represented many things: he was the ideal king, the ideal knight, the ideal husband and the ideal Christian.

The myths and legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were known all over Europe and were recorded very early in ‘romances’, long poems which are often regarded as the prototype of the novel. Even though Arthur was associated with Britain, works about him were written in many countries. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a twelfth-century cleric, from or based in Wales, whose book Historia Regium Britanniae contains a very early version of the Arthur stories. Later in the twelfth century, Chrétien de Troyes, who served at the court of Marie de France, Coutness of Champagne, wrote four complete and one incomplete romances about Arthur (Erec et Enide, Cligès, Yvain, Lancelot and Perceval). He is also credited with inventing the character of Lancelot. Another French poet of the late twelfth century, Robert de Boron wrote Josephe d’Arimathe about the Holy Grail, and Merlin. Around the same time Wolfram von Eschenbach was writing Parzival in Bavaria (probably), claiming that Chrétien de Troyes had got the story wrong. In the 1360s the Italian poet Boccaccio wrote a long poem about Arthur. Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt was written in England in the late fourteenth century by an unknown poet referred to either as ‘the Pearl poet’ or ‘the Gawain poet’. Possibly the best known version of the stories is Le Morte d’Arhur written by Sir Thomas Malory in the middle of the fifteenth century. Ironically, given the chivalrous nature of Arthur and his knights, Malory was a less than savoury character, being a thief and possibly a murderer. He changed sides during the Wars of the Roses and wrote down the stories while in prison.

Edward I was obsessed with Arthur, even taking his new bride to see Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury.  He usurped the Arthurian mythology when he conquered Wales. To the Welsh Arthur was the British hero who would return to beat back the English, but Edward I used him to bolster his own legend and to demonstrate to the Welsh that Arthur wasn’t coming back.

His grandson, Edward III, was similarly obsessed. Edward venerated his grandfather, and this was probably why he was interested in Arthur, although, as we shall see, there were other reasons for him to pursue this interest. From boyhood Edward III studied the lives of great kings from the past in order to be a good king and these included King Arthur. He studied the histories about Arthur, rather than the romances. Even though Edward III probably did not read the romances himself, it’s probable that he either heard the stories read aloud or told as entertainment. Both his mother and his wife were fond of the romances.

After he had overthrown his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, in 1330 Edward III’s contemporaries began to talk of him as King Arthur returned, fulfilling the prophecies of Merlin. He, however, was careful to claim no more for himself than the rôle of Sir Lionel, which had been assigned to him by Mortimer during a tournament. In this he learned from Mortimer himself. Mortimer had made himself unpopular by (amongst other things) identifying himself with Arthur.

Mortimer’s family held that they, being descendants of the Welsh kings were also descendants of Arthur. In 1329 Mortimer played the part of King Arthur and Isabella played Guinevere at a tournament, while Edward, the king, was a mere knight, Lionel. Mortimer was clearly putting himself above the king and this was probably one of the many things that made Edward III feel threatened and led to his coup against his mother. Lionel could be understood to mean ‘little lion’ and Edward later used it as a reference to the lions on his standard.  He named his third son Lionel.

When Edward III came to found his order of chivalry in the 1340s, his original vision was that his band of knights should have a round table at Windsor. He even planned a round building to house it. It was Edward I who had ordered the construction of the Round Table which is now in Winchester Castle and Edward III was probably thinking of this when he ordered his own Round Table to be built. Although there is nothing specific in the way the Order of the Knights of the Garter was set up that refers to Arthur, the mere fact that Edward set up an order of chivalry with a small number of knights was enough to make his subjects see the comparison.

Other medieval monarchs used the mythology of Arthur to their own ends. Henry VII named his first son Arthur. Henry was Welsh and, like Mortimer, was claiming descent from King Arthur. He did this in order to legitimise not only his own reign, but that of his son. The use of Arthur as a name for the Prince of Wales is not limited to medieval times; the current Prince of Wales also has Arthur as one of his names, as does Prince William.



Filed under Fourteenth Century

18 responses to “Edward III and King Arthur

  1. The tales of King Arthur and his knights seem to have worked their magic on successive generations. Do children today still read versions of them? My generation loved T H White’s The Once and Future King. We also watched an entirely different TV programme called Arthur of the Britons. Perhaps the defining characteristic of a great story is that it’s always up for constant reinvention?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robin McGraw

    love the movie “Excalibur”, anyone who loves the legend of Arthur needs to watch it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also love the legends of King Arthur. Love the supposed round table in Winchester and fell in love with Tintagel. Such a lovely read April.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dennis Sardella

    I can’t speak for the present generation, but our children (now in their forties) were mesmerized by Mary Stewart’s retelling of the Arthurian legend in her trilogy, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. As to whether the story of Arthur is historically true, I’m reminded of a colleague (a scientist like me) who said of a theory he had proposed, “It’s such a great story that if it’s not true, it ought to be.”


  5. Jordan

    Hello! I’m studying Medieval Studies for my MA right now and this article was a fun find. I love studying the life of Edward III, and his fascination with Arthur is really interesting to me. Do you have any recommendations for sources to look at with this? For example, how do we know that Edward studied histories of kings, and particularly Arthur?


    • I don’t read many primary sources, but it’s mentioned in many of the books I have and they quote primary sources. You could look at Edward III by W. Mark Ormrod, the Perfect King by Ian Mortimer and Edward III and the Triumph of England by Richard Barber. It may or may not be useful to look at Marc Morris’ A Great and Terrible King, which talks about Edward I’s appropriation of the Arthur mythology.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sally Binstead

    I really enjoyed this article April, and it’s interesting that you say Edward was most likely influenced by his grandfather Edward I, and I agree with that. Edward iii visited the Winchester Castle in 1330 for a parliamentary meeting in the Great Hall . He travelled from Windsor to Winchester with Queen Philippa, and whereas she chose to stay at Wolvesey Palace, where most royal visitors to the city stayed due to a devastating fire that had destroyed the royal chambers at the castle in 1302, Edward chose to stay up the road, at the Castle. I find this quite odd and I wonder if it was because of Edward’s invested interest in the Round Table, which in 1330, would still have been on the ground in the Great Hall, and staying at the Castle that night, instead of with his wife at Wolvesey, would have given the King a chance to observe the structure of the table, especially if he was intending on having one built to seat 300 men! I can’t think of another reason why Edward and Philippa would have slept in separate castles… unless maybe they had a blazing row on their way down from Windsor!
    I work at the Great Hall, and I always end my tours by talking about
    Edward III and his connection with the Round Table.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I’m a little envious of you working there. I don’t think there was a tour on offer when I visited a couple of years ago.

      I can definitely imagine Philippa preferring to stay at Wolvesey, as it must have been much more comfortable. Depending on when it was in 1330, she was either pregnant or had not long given birth to Edward of Woodstock. If it was the parliament in which Edward III was forced to condemn his uncle, the Earl of Kent, to death, he might not have wanted her to see his humiliation. Equally, if Mortimer and Queen Isabella were staying at Wolvesey he might have preferred the apparent freedom of staying somewhere else.


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