King Edward and King Arthur - Sarah Woodbury

King Edward and King Arthur

Both King Edward and King Arthur have been the topic of other videos. Today I wanted to put them together, specifically to talk about how the Normans, in a triumph of medieval propaganda, claimed King Arthur for themselves and King Edward, in particular, used the King Arthur legend to justify his conquest of Wales.

Many historians don’t believe King Arthur ever existed, but medieval people were certain that he did. The first mentions of him are in Welsh sources, namely the Welsh bards Taliesin and Anieren, writing in the 6th and 7th centuries respectively. To them, Arthur was a late 5th century British war-leader, credited with holding back the Saxon advance for a generation. 

With the coming of the Normans, the story of this Welsh warlord, who might not even have been a king, was expanded and embellished (and outright mythologized), initially by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Geoffrey’s work was commissioned by Robert, the Earl of Gloucester and the son of the King of England. This was the first attempt by the Norman conquerors to justify their conquest of Britain as a whole by claiming a British hero for themselves as a means to cast themselves as the true inheritors of the throne of Britain. 

This theme was expanded upon over the next century, such that by the time of the Edwardian conquest, certain aspects of the tale were well-established in the popular imagination, including the notion of chivalry, a round table, and that Arthur had, in fact, been a king.

King Edward, in particular, sought not only to place himself within the lineage of Arthur but even to cast himself in the role of King Arthur. His first foray in that direction was when he and his wife, Eleanor, oversaw the ‘reburial’ of Arthur and Guinevere, whose graves had been ‘discovered’ by the monks at Glastonbury. Then, once the conquest of Wales was complete, his work in this vein began in earnest.

In 1284, in a similar move to when he’d reburied Arthur’s bones, Edward ‘discovered’ the bones of Magnus Maximus, known in Welsh as Macsen Wledig and the grandfather of King Arthur, at Caernarfon. He then reburied these bones with great ceremony in a local church, perhaps St. Peblig’s, though no record of that location now remains. 

King Edward was following a well-known legend that Maximus had dreamt of a beautiful woman who would become his wife, far away in Wales. He would find her at her father’s court, located at a great castle. He traveled all the way to Caernarfon to find her at the former Roman fort of Segontium, located on the hill above the present town and castle. She was the daughter of the local ruler, who’d moved into the fort after the departure of the Romans. This site became Maximus’s seat in Wales, and of course subsequently the seat of the Welsh princes who came after.

For this reason, King Edward made his castle of Caernarfon his administrative center for Wales, thus putting himself directly in Arthur’s lineage and claiming Arthur’s throne. 

In addition, he brought his pregnant wife, Eleanor, all the way to Caernarfon so she could give birth to Edward II there, making him a ‘Prince’ of Wales.

A few months later, in July of 1284 for his 45th birthday, Edward traveled with his court to Llyn Cwm Dulyn, located just south of Caernarfon. This is at this lake where (supposedly) Excalibur was found. And then, a few weeks later at the end of July, he took not only his court but much of the nobility of England to Nefyn to hold a tournament, which he called a Round Table, in the spirit of King Arthur. This tournament was explicitly intended to celebrate his conquest of Wales and reward his barons for their service. To that end, he cast himself in the role of Arthur and dubbed his various lords in attendance with the names of Arthur’s knights.

He even built himself his own Round Table.

Nefyn was not only another seat of the kings and princes of Gwynedd, but also was where the 12th century chronicler, Gerald of Wales, claimed to have found the writings of Merlin.

In large part because of these attempts on the part of King Edward to incorporate his own mythology into the Arthurian legend, by the 14th century, the process of submerging and obscuring the Welsh Arthur into the French and English versions of him was all but complete–even to the point that, although one would be hard-pressed to find a modern person who has never heard of King Arthur, very few have ever learned that he was actually Welsh.


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