Over the weekend, I was startled to find an image in the Wall Street Journal of the Winchester Round Table, a vast wooden tabletop currently on display, as the name would suggest, at Winchester Castle, UK. The image accompanied a review of two new translations (if this is the right word) of Malory’s “Mort d’Arthur,” perhaps the most famous compendium of Arthurian legend, originally published in 1485. The caption attributes the Winchester Round Table to the reign of King Edward I, an Arthur enthusiast.
While the intial explosion of Arthurian romance is associated with the earlier era of troubador poetry and courtly love, the ideals of chivarly and knightly behavior were passed down through the generations. I was a bit surprised, actually, to see this table associated with Edward I. It is notoriously his grandson, Edward III (the king I’m replacing in my historical fantasy series–sorry, Edward!) who is considered one of the flowers of chivalry, and himself founded the order of the Knights of the Garter in deliberate imitation of Arthur’s round table.
However a quick moment’s snooping through my bookshelf revealed that Edward III’s notrious mother, Queen Isabella (sometimes known as “the She-Wolf” for her part in the downfall of her king, Edward II), who was an avid reader of Arthurian tales. According to historian Paul Doherty, by the time Edward II acceded to the throne, when Isabella was eleven years old, she already possessed a fine collection of books about Arthur and his knights, and continued to collect them throughout her life.
The betrothal came at a weak moment for the otherwise brilliant warrior-statesman Edward I, during negotiations with Phillip le Bel of France, when the princess was very young indeed, and special dispensation was needed from the pope before the proposal could be accepted. There appears to have been little communication between Edward and his son and the young princess up to Edward I’s death of illness while campaigning in Scotland in 1307. One wonders, looking back on all that happened afterward–the weak son who would replace the great king, the earl of March, Roger Mortimer, who claimed lineage to another king of Arthur’s era, the eventual shock of Mortimer and Isabella uniting to seize the throne–what role the legends had in the lives of those who loved them.
Isabella lost her mother at the age of 6, and lived her early life as a pawn to the statecraft of her royal father. Did she seek comfort in her books, as many of us do during our isolated youth? Did she despise in her husband the lack of all those qualities Arthur’s knights embodied for her? Was it, in part, Mortimer’s shared enthusiasm for her beloved literature, that drew them together when they came together during his exile in France? And above all else, how much did his mother’s love for Arthurian legend create in Edward III, a knight to be reckoned with?