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.