Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesu into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross. I will not say it shall be so, but rather I will say: here in this world he changed his life.
Le Morte d’Arthur Narrator, 926
Chivalry has become a term associated with a noble code of conduct. Considered virtuous and knightly, it is associated with Arthurian legend and seen as a general masculine moral code. Chivalry is a combination of military ethos, courtly love, courtesy and piety, intended to set the standard of supreme nobility and honour that should manifest itself in the heroic knight.
From the Crusades, chivalry has developed leaving a legacy in art and literature. Chivalry found its origins in the collapse of the Carolingian empire, in the late 9th and early 10th century. The emperor Charlemagne’s campaigns were focused on expansion of his empire. After Charlemagne’s demise, the empire fractured into a number of states who were in constant combat with each other. It was amongst this turmoil that chivalry seemed to emerge with groups of heavily armed knights having developed a distinctive ethic of war. Previously, war saw two choices, death or slavery. A new ethos emerged amongst the Frankish knights, promoting a sense of clemency which eventually turned into ransom and subsequently, honourable surrender.
Adhering to the new code during combat, when a knight was defeated, he had the option to gracefully surrender and be granted honourable clemency by his opponent. It is questionable as to whether this was formed from a reluctance to kill fellow Christians, for it was under the Christian tradition that chivalry grew.
Originally, councils summoned warriors and ordered them not to fight from Thursday till Sunday, the days between the passion and the resurrection. Slowly, these rules became a set of norms, suffering penalty within the church through penance or fines should these rules be broken. The church took the concept of chivalry and utilised it within Christianity as an honourable fight, for example, the fight against sin, or the fight against the devil. We can draw a more common association to this with the iconic image of an armoured St George in combat with the dragon. He is not only sanctified, he is a chivalric icon, fighting in the name of God.
Eastern Orthodox depictions of Saint George slaying a dragon often include the image of a young woman who looks on from a distance. The standard iconographic interpretation of the image icon is that the dragon represents Satan, a legend revisited by the Crusaders and retold with the courtly appurtenances demonstrative of chivalry.
It is the legend of St George and everything that he stood for that was re-visited in the 14th century by Edward III. King Edward III reigned from 1327 to 1377. In 1344 Edward held festivities at Windsor and planned the construction of a round table, as an imitation of the legendary king Arthur. Further, in 1348 the king founded the Order of the Garter, an elitist fraternity whose members embodied the ethos set by the Chivalric Code.
The political undertone behind the chivalric ideal of Edward III is evident as he typologically cast himself as the quintessentially English Arthurian hero, even as Arthur himself, and chivalry developed into a romantic ideal surrounding warfare.
By the end of 1343, no plans had been formulated to campaign in France, despite the fact the king had made a mockery of peace talks, sending junior clerks to meet with French royalty. Edward III was determined to launch another campaign but would have to persuade parliament to vote another tax to support the war. With only Flanders as his ally, the majority of his army would be made up predominantly of Englishmen; The king would have to make the campaign a national incentive.
This began in 1344 when he set about to create the Round Table at Windsor. This was a pre-Garter attempt at creating a chivalric cult in the shadow of King Arthur. In January 1344, Edward III held a tournament and feast at Windsor, arranged as part of a recruiting drive for his next military campaign. He had to present himself as a brave and chivalric king, impressive to his subjects and a king able to lead England to victory. The festivities would appeal to the romantic view on warfare, and served to emulate the battles of Arthur and his knights. Edward offered a membership to the proposed Round Table that would bring with it irresistible military prestige and a chivalric reputation. If Edward did succeed in battle, he would have set himself up as a re-born Arthur and saviour of England. The entire enterprise was created in the guise of Arthurian romance.
The success at Crécy in 1346, and subsequently Edward’s popularity as a king and patriot paved the way for the formation of the Order of the Garter. The Order arose from a celebration, tournament or joust. It was during this that the king and twelve knights wore a garter around their left knee and wore robes which displayed the garter during the festivities. The knights tilted in a mock battle display honouring the military prowess of king Edward and his army.
The Order consisted of knights who had all served on campaign and particularly at Crécy. Wearing blue and gold robes they served under the motto ‘honi soit qui mall y pense’, or ‘shame upon him who thinks evil of it’. The use of the French colours blue and gold, in addition to the French vernacular for the motto suggest that the Order of the Garter was also an affirmation of Edward’s dynastic right, rulership of France. The inception of the Order of the Garter was thus clearly an integral part of Edward’s Norman campaign.
The devotion to St George was evidently extremely significant to Edward III as he drew on public attention to the patron saint, introducing an annual feast of the Order of the Garter on the 23rd of April. St George’s Day became one of the main feast days in the calendar alongside Christmas and Easter, at which the entire household gathered for feasting in the Great Hall. In 1353, the St George’s Day feast accounted for the largest household expenditure that year.
The ‘enshrining’ of Edward’s claim to the French throne, linguistically and visually in the Order of the Garter, paralleled an alternative meaning. The formation was a holy order, and a pious act of thanksgiving to the patron Saint George, but it was also a reward for those who had served on campaign, particularly at Crécy. Although it was a celebration of military success, Edward had also set a benchmark of chivalric hierarchy that was not only elitist, but was also politically strategic. He created a bond of loyalty from his knights in a chivalric ritual which publicly emphasised his dynastic right in France. The claim was formalised when Edward used the title ‘King of France’ in letters dated on 7 October 1337.
Windsor, the seat of the Order of the Garter housed Saint George’s Chapel, and was also the birth place of Edward III. It is at Windsor that Edward sowed the seed of the Arthurian ideal. Windsor was described by chronicler Jean Le Bel as ‘the great castle of Windsor, formerly built and founded by King Arthur’. The account of Jean le Bel suggests there was excitement and anticipation over the formation of a Round Table, as it actively took the popular figure of King Arthur out of romantic mythology and into reality, as Edward paralleled himself with the king of legend.
Edward III was arguably strongly influenced by his grandfather, Edward I, the ‘Hammer of the Scots’. Edward I was fascinated with the legend of Arthur and knew how to appeal to history in political expedience. The romances and Arthurian legends of the period were becoming increasingly popular, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Parallels have been drawn between the meaning of the motto ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ with the content of the poem. This stems from the discovery of a manuscript copy of the poem with the garter motto added at the end. This is also found in the prose Tristan. The narrator describes knights of the Round Table knights as ‘compaigne de la table rounde’. ‘Compainge’ was a rare word in this period, meaning an intimate association. This insinuates that the collective body of knights were close comrades, forming the tight-knit circle of knights bound to the Round Table and its head, Arthur. In a tactical use of chivalric ‘brotherhood’, it is clear the Arthurian ideal that Edward emulates in assembling the Order of the Garter, and the original construction of the Round Table, is one of unity; merging the romantic idea of Arthurian companionship with military politics. The romantic devotion to King Arthur which had developed manifested itself into a strict military loyalty, through Edward the III and his heir, the Black Prince, to the national patron, Saint George.
The military success of Edward III, his dedication to Saint George and his association with King Arthur appears on the epitaph of his tomb in Westminster Abbey.
‘Here is the glory of the English, the paragon of past Kings, the model of future Kings, a merciful King, the peace of the peoples, Edward the third fulfilling the jubilee of his reign, the unconquered leopard, powerful in war like a Macabee. While he lived prosperously, his realm lived again in honesty. He ruled mighty in arms; now in heaven let him be a King’.
The epitaph prompts the onlooker to acknowledge they are in the presence of a patriot, a chivalric icon and a central figure of iconic kingship and a ‘model of future kings’.
It is evident that Edward III utilised the deeply embedded chivalric code as a method to promote his military campaign. He glorified and romanticised the concept of warfare by creating an Arthurian cult setting himself up as the re-born king and saviour. He unified the country into fighting a patriotic war with the iconic Saint George as its patron, sanctifying the war in France as a war blessed by God with the rightful and just king Edward as its chivalric hero. Edward III’s inception of the Arthurian ideal, and ultimately the Order of the Garter, was an act of political and military expedience which was rewarded by absolute military success. Chivalry had originally emerged as an expedient way of fighting, removing some of the threat of mortality for the high born. But through political artifice Edward III introduced romantic ideology and installed patriotism, redefining chivalry into how it is considered today, as a more noble concept.
Helen Carr is a writer and historian, specializing in Medieval England. She studied at York University where she completed her undergraduate degree in History of Art, followed by a Masters degree at Reading in Medieval History. Helen currently works in the art world and regularly writes for the BBC. She lives in Crouch End and thinks the Tower of London is the most magical place in the city.