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In the spring of 1284, almost a year on from the end of
hostilities, Edward I returned to Wales to consolidate his conquest.
Besides issuing the statute of
(see above),
the king orchestrated a host of special events, including the birth of his
namesake son (and future successor) at Caernarfon on 25 April, and, later in
the summer, a ‘Round Table’ tournament at
where the prophecies of Merlin were said to have been discovered. Such
Arthur-themed entertainment served an obvious political purpose, but one gets
the strong impression that by this point Edward was also indulging a genuine
enthusiasm. (The Welsh themselves seem to have picked up on this and pandered
to it, presenting the king with a coronet they called ‘Arthur’s Crown’). Such enthusiasm
would also explain why Edward’s itinerary that summer took him to so many
remote locations, for several of them have legendary associations.
Island, said to be the
burial place of 20,000 saints, was one. Another was
, a deep, dark
lake some ten miles south of Caernarfon, where Edward spent three whole weeks,
including his 45th birthday. Was he waiting, one wonders, for Excalibur to be
borne aloft from the waters?



The Welsh revolt of 1294–95 had begun, in north Wales, on the Island
of Anglesey, when the local people in
the town of
had lynched their English sheriff. The attack had exposed Anglesey
as the weak link in Edward’s chain of castles, and the king responded by
and replacing it with one final
giant fortress.
, as its name implies, was
built on marshy ground, rather than the usual rocky platform, and Edward’s
architect responded by creating a
castle of
perfect symmetry. In terms of total area it was his bigger even than
Caernarfon, with an outer perimeter that ran for a quarter of a mile, and a
harbour that enabled ships of up to forty tons to dock at the water-gate. The
castle’s island location meant that most of the building material had to be brought
there by
and this, combined with the scale of
the enterprise – at one stage there were almost 3,000 workers on site – meant
that construction was hugely expensive. Unfortunately for Edward he was by this
stage fighting new wars against France
and Scotland
which drained his treasury. As a result,
like Caernarfon, remained unfinished at the time of the king’s death in 1307.

12. The Riddle of
Round Table –

More so than any other medieval monarch, Edward I loved to
travel. Every corner of Britain,
most of Europe, and even the Holy Land – there
were precious few places that this particular English king had not visited. At
first glance, therefore, his arrival in Winchester
in September 1285 might seem unremarkable – a routine royal pit-stop, notable
only for the promulgation of some law-and-order legislation. In actual fact,
this was the occasion for a great chivalric festivity, long since forgotten,
but which probably explains the creation of one of the most intriguing of all
medieval artefacts – the Winchester Round Table.

The Round Table at Winchester
– ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’ – is justly famous. A giant disc of solid oak,
eighteen feet in diameter and three-quarters of a ton in weight, it now hangs
at the end of the Great Hall of what was once Winchester Castle.
Obviously, the table has nothing to do with a real King Arthur (whisper it
quietly – he never existed). Scientific analysis has proved that it was made at
some point in the second half of the thirteenth century, and thus most likely
dates from the reign of Edward I (1272–1307).

The current orthodoxy holds that the table was probably made
in 1290, in connection with a two-day tournament that Edward staged in Winchester to celebrate
the marriage of one of his daughters. A closer reading of the evidence,
however, suggests that the true context of the table’s creation lies in the
little-regarded royal visit of five years earlier. A glance at the names of
those witnessing the king’s charters, for example, shows that in September 1285
Edward was surrounded by almost all his earls and most of his greater barons,
but almost none of his bishops. Far from being a routine parliament, as
historians have previously supposed, this was an exclusively secular assembly.
Moreover, the unusual nature of the event finds powerful confirmation in the
reliable (but hitherto overlooked) words of a contemporary chronicler. In his
entry for 1285, the Worcester Annalist states laconically that ‘on the feast of
the nativity of the Virgin [8 September] the king gave arms to 44 knights at Winchester’. In other
words, Edward was involved in dubbing that day – creating new knights, en
masse, surrounded by the greatest military men in his realm.

Creating a large number of knights at one time, while
comparatively rare, was nothing new. Typically kings or other potentates would
organize such grand ceremonies when they wanted to honour one especially
important participant. (When, for instance, Edward himself was knighted by the
king of Spain
in 1254, the same accolade had been simultaneously bestowed on a crowd of
lesser candidates.) Frustratingly, in the case of the Winchester ceremony, we know the names of
only a handful of those present, and none of these men are important enough to
have been the focus of festivities. Possibly the occasion was contrived in
order to honour Edward’s nineteen-year-old nephew, John of Brittany, whose
career on the tournament field appears to have begun around this point.

The king, however, clearly had other motives for organizing a
mass knighting in the autumn of 1285. Earlier in the year he had ordered that
all men in his kingdom with lands worth more than £100 a year should come
before him to be knighted on 8 September – the same date, that is, on which the
ceremony took place. This was quite unusual. English kings often decreed that
their subjects with income above a certain level should take up arms, but
normally they did so in order to raise money, reckoning that most men would
rather pay a fine than actually have to bear the expense that knighthood
entailed. In 1285, by contrast, Edward I
genuinely to have wanted to increase the number of knights in his kingdom.

The reason for the king’s determination to dub on this
occasion was his recent conquest of Wales. In 1282–83 Edward had driven
huge armies into Snowdonia and extinguished its ruling dynasties, while much of
1284 had been spent touring the newly conquered territory (supervising, amongst
other things, the construction of the mighty castles at Conwy,
and Caernarfon). The scale of the victory was
awesome, but it had inevitably led the king to place huge demands on his
English subjects, and sparked arguments about the extent of military obligation
– several times in the course of the conflict Edward had tried to compel men to
take up arms. By revisiting the issue in 1285 Edward hoped to draw a line under
these arguments, and to establish a clear precedent for the future, namely
that men
of certain economic means ought to be knights as a
matter of course.

The conquest of Wales also explains why the dubbing
ceremony should assume an Arthurian air. Of course, in the thirteenth century
Arthur was immensely popular all over
nowhere more so than in England.
For the English, however, the legendary king presented a peculiar problem
because of his British origins – ethnically, the man that everyone admired so
much was Welsh. Edward I set about squaring this circle by appropriating Arthur
for himself, effectively rebranding the British warrior as an honorary Englishman.
In 1278, for example, just months after the conclusion of his first war with Wales, the English king visited Glastonbury, and ceremoniously reburied the
body that the local monks swore blind was that of Arthur. Similarly, in 1283,
the conquered Welsh sought to placate their new overlord by presenting him with
a trinket which they claimed was ‘Arthur’s crown’. The following year, as part
of his victor’s progress, the Edward held a celebratory tournament at
, which contemporaries described as a ‘round table’.

Edward, in short, was an Arthurian enthusiast, and for
political reasons – because of his recent engagement with Wales – his
enthusiasm was probably at its peak in 1285. On his return to London
in May that year, the king celebrated his victory once again for the benefit of
the citizens, processing from the Tower
of London – still decorated with the
mouldering heads of the defeated Welsh princes – to Westminster Abbey, where he
presented some of the religious relics he had liberated from Wales at the
high altar. This was the immediate context for his decision to hold a mass
knighting in four months’ time: the order to the £100 landowners to come before
him and receive arms was given just two days later.

Short of an explicit statement on a royal roll – and, alas, a
comprehensive trawl of the surviving documents has revealed no such nugget – we
cannot be entirely certain. We can, however, be fairly sure that, having issued
the order that would lead to the great chivalric gathering in September 1285,
Edward would have started to plan the ceremony itself. He must have soon
settled on Winchester,
with its royal castle and resplendent great hall, as a suitable venue. And it
also seems very probable that, being in an Arthurian frame of mind, and keen to
be regarded in the same light as the legendary British king, Edward also let it
be known that for this occasion he required a special centrepiece. Most likely
it was that summer that royal carpenters assembled in Winchester and began, on the king’s instructions,
to build him a great round table.


The Later Life of
the Round Table

The Winchester Round Table was originally built to serve as a
functional piece of furniture –
much is clear
from the holes on its reverse side left by its twelve lost legs. Quite when
these were removed to transform it into a wall hanging is unclear, but it may
have been as early as the mid fourteenth century. It was certainly displayed in
this manner by the late fifteenth century, to judge from the comments of a
contemporary chronicler, and in the sixteenth century it was painted with its
current decorative scheme, giving it in the unfortunate appearance of a giant
dartboard. For hundreds of years thereafter it remained largely undisturbed, no
doubt because of its immense weight and size; only in 1873, when the entrance
to the hall was remodelled, was it moved from one end of the hall to the other.
In the 1970s, however, a restoration of the hall meant that the table had to be
moved again, allowing for a thorough scientific analysis under the direction of
Martin Biddle, which led to the conclusion that it had been made in the reign
of Edward I. All they got wrong, it seems, was the date.


Further Reading


Martin Biddle, King Arthur’s Round Table: An archaeological
investigation (Woodbridge,

Marc Morris, ‘Edward I and the Knights of the Round Table’,
Foundations of Medieval Scholarship: records edited in honour of David Crook,
ed. P. Brand and S. Cunningham (York,


13. Slaying
Myths: The Origins of the Cult of St George


As is widely appreciated, St George owes much of his
popularity in England
to the enthusiasm of Edward III. In 1348, when the king established the Order
of the Garter, his super-select chivalric club, he picked George as its special
patron, at the same time designating his birthplace, Windsor Castle, as the
order’s spiritual headquarters, and rededicating the chapel there (formerly
devoted to St Edward) in the saint’s honour. Just three years later the king
was pleased to refer to St George in his letters as ‘the most invincible
athlete of Christ, whose name and protection the English nation invoke as that
of their patron, especially in war’.

This was, it
a considerable
exaggeration. Recent historical writing, while still giving Edward III full
credit for establishing George’s cult on the firmest of royal footings, has
questioned the saint’s popularity with the English people as a whole. George
may have been beloved of Edward and his knights, but it was not until the
fifteenth century, in the wake of the victories of Henry V, that his cult
really began to assume a truly national status. Moreover, while it is clear
that Edward was particularly devoted to St George from an early age, it is also
apparent that interest in the saint’s cult had been intensifying in royal and
aristocratic circles for some time before the king’s accession.

The cult of St George, which originated in the eastern
Mediterranean in the fourth century, transferred to England in two phases. He was known
to the Anglo-Saxons, but only in his original manifestation as an early
Christian martyr. To judge from the minimal number of references to him, he was
never very popular in this guise, and some authorities – Bede, for example –
clearly considered him to be a dubious addition to the saintly canon. By the
time of the Norman Conquest, however, George had been reinvented as a Byzantine
soldier-saint, and his new-found military prowess made him irresistibly popular
with the knights of western Christendom, many of whom went east
in the course of the First Crusade. Indeed, a
quantum leap for George’s popularity in the West was his reported appearance in
aid of the First Crusaders during their successful siege of Antioch
in 1098; soon thereafter we find some of the earliest images of St George as a
knight on tombs and church doorways in England.

When did he move from the margins to the mainstream? One
thing is now certain – the shift had nothing to do with Richard the
. Until very recently, any book on the subject of
St George would invariably assert that his first flush of popularity in England, if not
his introduction to these shores, was due to the devotion of the famous
crusader king. Richard, it was confidently reported, had beheld a vision of
George during the siege of Acre, rebuilt a church in his honour at
, and, most significantly, had adopted the saint’s
emblem – the red cross on a white ground – as England’s arms. This tradition,
however, was completely discredited fifteen years ago by Oliver de
, who showed Richard’s connection with St George
to be entirely spurious, a legend invented for political purposes at the Tudor
court and unquestioningly accepted and embellished thereafter. Contemporary
sources for Richard’s reign mention neither visions nor church-building, and
inform us that the king and his crusaders wore white crosses, not red ones.
Apart from the incidental fact that he was married in a church dedicated to St
George, Richard has no demonstrable connection with him at all.

As far as can be determined, the earliest interest in St
George in royal and aristocratic circles in England was expressed two
generations after Richard’s death, in the middle decades of the thirteenth
century. In 1245, for example, King Henry III paid a certain Henry the
for writing an account of George’s life, and a
decade later he ordered an image of the saint to be installed over the entrance
to the hall at Winchester
Castle. Similarly, at
some point before his death in 1251,
one of the king’s closest courtiers, composed some lines of poetry (now sadly
lost) in George’s honour, while in 1251 itself, William de
a baron with strong court connections, decided to call his firstborn son George
– the earliest person mentioned in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
to bear that name after the saint himself.

Possibly this early English interest in St George had
something to do with crusading – it is interesting to note that each of the
above men – Henry III, Piper and
– had
taken the cross. At the same time, none of them actually went on crusade; their
interest in George equally likely to have been stirred by the growing
enthusiasm that his cult was attracting elsewhere in Europe.
In England
itself that enthusiasm remained muted. These are the only two references to
connect Henry III with George in a 56 year reign, compared with the thousands
that link the king to his favourite saint, Edward the Confessor, in whose
honour he rebuilt Westminster Abbey. Likewise, young George de
may have been the first of that name, but for a
long time he was also the last. Of the 1550 entries in the Dictionary of
National Biography for the thirteenth century, he is the only George.

If there was significant interest in St George at Henry’s
court, it is less likely to have been driven by the king, whose model was the
peaceable and pious Confessor, than by the more martial and mettlesome members
of his family circle. Henry’s queen, for instance, Eleanor of Provence, was an
avid reader of romance literature and an enthusiastic devotee of the cult of
chivalry. A romance work written for her after Henry’s death contains only a
passing reference to St George, but its very terseness shows that by this date
(1270s) the saint had become a byword for knightly prowess.

More likely still to have been an advocate for St George was
Henry’s son, the Lord Edward, later to reign as the formidable Edward I. Henry
may have had no need for a military role model, but that was not true of Edward
and his contemporaries, who hungered for glory on the tournament field, and who
yearned to go on crusade. For these young men George would have been an ideal
patron, and it is therefore probably significant that, when Henry’s reign
collapsed into civil war, they rode into battle against Simon de Montfort
wearing red crosses on a white ground – the earliest recorded use of the
saint’s device in England,
although not identified as such in the sources.

Unequivocal evidence of Edward’s identification with St
George, and the biggest advance for his standing in England
before the founding of the
came in the course
of the English conquest of Wales.
In both his campaigns against the Welsh (1276–77 and 1282–83) Edward led armies
that marched behind St George’s banner, and his
infantry were issued with St George’s
cross armbands, now explicitly described as such in royal financial accounts.
The association of George with the conquest was further underlined on the
king’s return to England in
1285, when he gave thanks for his victory by presenting four gold figures at
the altar of Canterbury Cathedral: St Edward and St John, the favourites of his father, were
now joined by St George and his horse.

Edward I was clearly not as singularly devoted to St George
as his namesake grandson. Indeed, when it came to the heavenly host, he
preferred to recruit as widely as possible. In later campaigns against the
Scots his troops still carried George’s banner, but they also bore the arms of
St Edward, St Edmund, St Cuthbert and St John of Beverley. Nor does Edward
appear to have had any marked personal interest in George’s cult. He regularly
gave alms St George’s
day (23 April), but did the same for scores of other saints. More tellingly, in
the inventory of royal relics taken after the king’s death in 1307, George
finds no mention.

In this respect, therefore, the prominence given to St George
during the conquest of Wales
seems peculiar and precocious, and one naturally wonders what lay behind it.
Edward, unlike his father, had not only taken the cross but had also been on
crusade (1270–72); as an experienced holy warrior, it was perhaps unsurprising
that his struggle against the Welsh should assume the aspect of a holy war.
More tentatively, one cannot help but wonder, given the longstanding
association of the Celtic peoples with the image of the dragon, whether George
was invoked because of his special skills in the slaying department. Certainly
the dragon legend, which had formed no part of George’s earliest lives, was
known in England
by this date.

Whatever the case, Edward
decision to invoke St George as his special patron during the conquest of Wales
– the earliest recorded occasion on which English armies marched under St
George’s banner – was a seemingly unique experiment, and George had to wait
another two generations before he his pre-eminent status was assured.

Would he have had to wait so long, however, had events in
1284 taken a slightly different turn? In the wake of his conquest of Wales, Edward returned to Snowdonia for a series
of carefully contrived victory celebrations, and on 25 April, his queen,
Eleanor of Castile, gave birth at Caernarfon
Castle to a son who would
eventually become his father’s successor. But would Edward II have borne that
name had he arrived just 48 hours earlier? Might the fourteenth century, rather
than the eighteenth century, have seen our first King George?

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