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King Arthur and his knights and the origin of the concept of attributed arms.  

Family History vol.25 no.206, September 2012 pp. 225-242.

King Arthur: a name that resounds through the centuries. Whether he is pure legend, or whether a hero of that name once existed will probably be debated until the end of time. One fact is certain, the stories of Arthur’s exploits date back to at least the sixth century, when Irish kings settling in the north and west of Britain named sons after him. Some of Arthur’s knights have been definitively identified as actual kings and princes who lived in that century, but it has not been possible to so identify Arthur himself, who if he existed at all, might easily have belonged to another era entirely. Arthur absorbed all the wonderful stories, both real and imagined, of an inventive bardic people, and he became to these people more real than the actual kings of the past. Despite the fact that everything which we know about him is legendary, to the medieval mind he was both real and inspirational, and his influence on the history of chivalry and heraldry is profound.

      These British stories found a new audience in the 11th century when the Bretons allied themselves with the Normans, and the various Norman conquests helped their stories to spread all over Europe. Following the Norman conquest of England the Breton stories were merged with those of their kinsmen in Wales and Cornwall. Arthur was reinvented for these new times, and the new Arthur would not have felt himself out of place in twelfth century Europe [1].

         The legend evolved quite swiftly after Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote an account of Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain, in around 1135. He wove together legendary material with all the standard histories which were available at the time. Dim memories of the several usurpers who set out from Britain to claim the imperial title, including Magnus Maximus, remembered in Welsh legend and supposedly the ancestor of later Welsh princes, became Arthur’s conquest of the whole western empire, including Rome itself. Arthur’s chief allies were made to be the Bretons. Geoffrey of Monmouth did such a brilliant job that his stories became rapidly disseminated amongst the intelligentsia of Western Europe.

           Master Wace, born in Jersey in around 1100, translated his work into French in 1155 and gave a copy to Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II. Wace instilled into the work the new twelfth century ethos of chivalry and courtly love, and he added the Round Table, where all men sat as equals.  Also at the court of Henry II was the scholar and poet Walter Map, born around 1137 in the Welsh Marches, who as a young man studied in Paris. Near contemporary sources accredited to him the discovery (we might say the invention) of the stories of Lancelot, Galahad and the quest for the Holy Grail.

        The stories of Walter Map were written down and further elaborated in French by Chrétien de Troyes in 1170-90 for the Count of Flanders. Chrétien was linked to the court of Henry II in that he belonged to the court of the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Champagne. In his writings we have the earliest mention of Camelot, the name being perhaps derived from Camulodunum, or Roman Colchester; the Round Table became the centrepiece of a great chivalric court; and the story of Sir Perceval-Parsifal was developed into an exploration of the spiritual element of knighthood.

          The evolution of the Arthurian saga coincided exactly with the development of heraldry, which began to be prevalent in the upper echelons of knightly society in the first half of the twelfth century. This was the time of the invention of the tournament and of the ceremony of knighthood, the first recorded being that of Geoffrey of Anjou in 1128.

           Almost from the very beginning of heraldry shields were being invented for the heroes of old.  Around 1160 Benoît de St Maur in his Trojan Romance gave descriptions of the shields of the heroes. Thus Troilus bore   or a lion azure. [2] This phenomenon is telling us something important about the powerful hold which heraldry was beginning to have over the popular imagination even in its infancy. From the very beginning it was necessary for great and legendary heroes to bear recognisable arms: and the desire to emulate these heroes must have greatly contributed to the ripple effect whereby the bearing of arms quickly permeated the whole of knightly society. To be a great knight  one had to imitate both the great lords of the present and the great heroes of legend, who alike possessed shields of arms.

         King Arthur’s original attributed arms in the twelfth century were taken straight from the pages of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who had him bearing an image of the Virgin Mary on his shield Pridwen.(Figure 1). In the thirteenth century new arms were invented for him, almost certainly at the instigation of Edward I and the monks of Glastonbury Abbey. The influence of that abbey on the popularisation of Arthur must have been considerable, but the link between Arthur and the abbey was only began in the aftermath of the destruction of the ancient Saxon church by fire in 1184. This left the abbey badly in need of an influx of pilgrims to finance building works.  In 1189, on the death of Henry II, King Richard I made the aristocratic Frenchman Henry de Sully its abbot, after a vacancy of 9 years. De Sully was previously Abbot of Bermondsey Abbey, and a familiar of the royal court where tales of Arthur were already well known. Richard the Lionheart himself  came into possession of the sword Excalibur, which he gave to Tancred of Sicily in 1191. According to Glastonbury monastic tradition, the discovery that Glastonbury was located on the Isle of Avalon had been made by a Welsh bard at the court of Henry II.[3] There is no reason to disbelieve this assertion, and perhaps once again we can discern the ingenuity of Walter Map.


[1] For a useful summary of the development of the legend of king Arthur see Richard Barber’s Arthur, hero and legend (Woodbridge, 1986).

[2] Gerard Brault, Early Blazon 2nd edition (Woodbridge, 1997),pp.18-19.

[3] J Armitage Robinson, Two Glastonbury legends: King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea (Cambridge, 1926).

King Arthur from a thirteenth century English manuscript. Drawing by Paul A. Fox                                                 r

Figure 1. King Arthur from a thirteenth century English manuscript.

                                    drawing by Paul A. Fox

      At that time in the graveyard at Glastonbury stood two Saxon pyramid tombs dating to the early 8th century and  carved with ancient lettering. One was 26 feet high, and the other, 18 feet high. In 1191, supposedly while digging a new grave for one of the monks between the two pyramids, they found the coffin of a woman with her golden hair intact. Below it was a coffin containing a man’s bones, and below that another man’s coffin on which a lead cross was placed, inscribed with the words “here lies the famous king Arthur, buried in the Isle of Avalon”.

       The first tomb was said to be that of Guinevere, the second of Mordred, and the third of Arthur. The finding of the graves might have been accidental, but their interpretation as Arthurian was evidently the Abbot’s doing, and the fabrication of the cross shows that he did not want to take any chances that people might doubt they had the bones of King Arthur himself, nor indeed that Glastonbury was the true location of Avalon. The bones  were said to be of great size, in keeping with his larger than life character; his skull damaged about the ear, the wound which he had received from Mordred.

        The eminent Arthurian scholar Nitze believed that in Chrétien de Troye’s Percival he could identify clear references to Glastonbury as it was in the late 12th century. [4] If accepted this supports the contention that Chrétien’s work stemmed from Walter Map and the English court.

    The dawning of a new century saw a great scholarly debate within the Catholic Church on the doctrine of transubstantiation. Ratified by the Church at the second Lateran council in 1215, it was in the context of this debate that the idea that the Holy Grail was the cup of the last supper was developed by a Frenchman called Robert de Borron. He wrote a poem about Christ’s disciple Joseph of Arimathea, who collected the blood of the crucified Christ in the same cup. Joseph sent the Grail to England, to Avalon, and Percival went there on his quest for it. The monks of Glastonbury, keen to pursue their advantage, by 1250 were claiming that Joseph of Arimathea founded their church. It is a mystery why they never managed to “find” the Grail itself, even though several churches in Europe were to do so, notably the Cathedral of Valencia.

           The international craze for Arthuriana reached new heights in the thirteenth century and nowhere was this interest more pronounced than at the English court, where the stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth had begun their brilliant metamorphosis. Edward I’s mother Eleanor of Provence was taken to Glastonbury soon after her arrival in England at the age of twelve because she loved all things Arthurian. Edward himself is known to have taken a volume of Arthurian romance to the Holy Land with him. His uncle Richard of Cornwall on becoming earl spent considerable sums building Tintagel castle, a place then of no strategic significance, but believed to have been Arthur’s birthplace.

         In Easter 1278 Edward I and Eleanor of Castile went to stay at Eleanor’s manor of Queen’s Camel, adjacent to South Cadbury, and already identified as Camelot. [5] We tend to assume this attribution was made centuries later. They travelled on to Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury where the tomb was opened, and inside were two chests painted with the images and arms of Arthur and Guinevere. They took out the bones: Arthur’s skull, wounded about the ear, was left out for show. The king personally wrapped Arthur’s bones in silk, while Eleanor of Castile similarly prepared the bones of Guinevere. The dating is significant because it was at exactly this time that a new version of Arthur’s arms came in to widespread usage, Azure three crowns or (Figure 2), and it is highly probable that it was this new version of the arms which was painted on the tomb chests .


[4] W.A.Nitze, “The exhumation of King Arthur at Glastonbury”, Speculum vol. 9 (4) Oct 1934, pp. 355-361.

[5] Marc Morris, A great and terrible king, Edward I and the forging of Britain (London, 2009) pp. 162-166.

coat of arms Azure three crowns or from York Minster

                                           Figure 2  Azure three crowns or

                      from inside the central tower of York Minster.

                                     Photograph by Paul A. Fox

A variety of manuscripts from the early 1300s illustrate stories of Arthur with the three crowns shield, so it is evident that by then it had widespread currency.[6] The earliest known drawing of the three crowns is in the herald’s roll which has been dated 1270-80, but in this roll they are given not for Arthur, but for St Edmund, and it is necessary to explain why. The earlier works illustrated by Matthew Paris during the reign of Henry III ascribe numerous arms to pre-heraldic kings, but not one of them has a shield of crowns, which appears to confirm that they were of later thirteenth century devising. There is a clear symbolism behind giving Arthur three crowns, to represent his multiple kingdoms, but Arthur ruled more than three kingdoms, and indeed some versions of his arms give multiple crowns. [7] The selection of three crowns was intensely political, and suggests the direct personal involvement of Edward I himself: Edward by the grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Aquitaine was making it clear to all that he ruled these three countries as the successor of King Arthur himself. Edward I prepared for himself a strangely unadorned purbeck marble tomb on which a simple epitaph was written, highly reminiscent of the Glastonbury tomb of Arthur.

        Later heraldic legend stated that Helen of Colchester, mother of Constantine the Great, introduced the three crowns symbol to England.  When the compiler of the Heralds roll was looking for arms for St Edmund he decided to use the arms which were by then known to have been the ancient arms of England, handed down from the time of King Arthur. This also explains why numerous attributed arms of other Saxon kings and saints some of whom preceded St Edmund, were derived from the three crowns motif, including those of   Edwin king of Deira, founder of York Minster (Gules three crowns or) and King Sweyn (Or three crowns gules).[8]

      In Sweden King Magnus Ladislaus, who ruled from 1275 to 1290, had three crowns on his seal, although not on the shield itself (Figure 3). It is a reasonable supposition that the seal dates after 1278 when he recaptured Gothland from his brother and took the title “King of the Swedes and the Goths”, the third part of the kingdom being Finland. This is fascinatingly close in date to the origin of the three crowns shield of King Arthur, too close indeed to say whether the one might have influenced the other. The three crowns motif was not conspicuously used by the Kings of Sweden again until after 1363 when Albrecht of Mecklenburg adopted Azure three crowns or as his arms following his accession. He cannot have been ignorant of the fact that these were by then well established as King Arthur’s own, and it must be assumed that this was part of their appeal.


[6] Brault, op. cit., p. 44.

[7] In the versions which show a larger number of crowns thirteen were usually depicted. This was perhaps because someone misread the number trois for treize.

[8] These three examples occur in the fourteenth-century William Jenyns Ordinary.

Seal of King Magnus Ladislaus of Sweden. Drawing by Paul A. Fox

            Figure 3. Seal of King Magnus Ladislaus of Sweden.

                                    Drawing by Paul A. Fox

King Arthur’s Court.

Arms were assigned to the major knights of the Round Table from a very early period, and like those of Arthur himself they show evolution over time.  Possibly the oldest known is that of Sir Tristan.  Brault has reconstructed that the arms attributed to him in the romance of Tristan and Isolda, written by a poet in the entourage of Henry II, were gules a lion rampant or.[9] It is assumed that the similarity with the king’s own arms were intended as a form of flattery.

      Tristan’s legendary homeland was Ermenie, which is one of the names for Brittany in Old French and Middle English literature. The Dukes of Brittany were clearly as fond of the stories of Arthur as the Plantagenets. Three of the Breton dukes were called Arthur, the earliest ruling 1187-1203. Brault has argued that the arms of Brittany, ermine, are a canting for Ermenie.[10]  Of similar antiquity are the original arms given to Sir Gawain and Sir Lancelot.[11] In a work of the early thirteenth century Gawain was given the arms argent a canton gules, while Sir Lancelot from this time was consistently given the arms Argent three bends gules. [12] The lady of the Lake who brought him up initially gave him white armour, but her friend the damsel at the castle called the Dolorous Garde gave him three magical shields, all argent, but with one, two, and three bends gules. The shield with three bends gave him the strength of three men.  Lancelot’s family were given arms based on variations on this theme, in accordance with later principles of cadency.

          Sir Percival in the early period bore a plain red shield and Sir Galahad the templar device of argent a cross gules. The latter knight, having achieved the Grail quest, was equated with the templars who came to be seen as the guardians of the Grail. The arms were later rationalised as having been the shield of Joseph of Arimathea, on which he placed the blood of Christ.  Brault in his book Early blazon is troubled that he can suggest no literary allusion or canting to account for the choice of Gawain’s arms, but if we consider the arms of the other main characters who bear only two colours, argent and gules, there is an obvious metaphor for the Grail Quest and the body and blood of Christ (Figure 4), An Arthurian romance dedicated to Eleanor of Castile around 1280 described 21 shields borne by knights at a tournament held at Bamborough.[13] It included Gawain’s brothers, all of whose arms continued the theme of using argent and gules (Figure 5).

          The occasions when knights of the Round Table failed to bear their own arms, and went incognito were many and various, and it usually led to misfortune. There was an important moral here. Possibly the most famous example of this is where the Lady of  Astolat (Tennyson’s Lady of Shalot) fell in love with Sir Lancelot and asked him to carry her token at a tournament. He could only do so by going in disguise, to avoid upsetting his  lover Queen Guinevere. As a consequence Lancelot was wounded by his own cousin Sir Bors. He was nursed back to health by our maiden, but after he left she died of a broken heart.


[9] Brault, op. cit. pp. 20-21.

[10] Brault, op. cit., p. 36.

[11] Brault op. cit. pp. 37-39, 47.

[12] The dating of the original manuscripts on which this assertion is based is open to question. Brault op. cit.p. 21 cites an opinion that they were written around 1200. The arms are certainly no later than the middle of the thirteenth century.

[13] Brault op.cit., pp. 38-39.

arms of Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, Sir Percival, Sir Galahad

Figure 4. The Gules and argent theme of the arms of Sir Gawain,

Sir Lancelot, Sir Percival and Sir Galahad.

Drawing by Paul A. Fox

By the time of Edward I all the major knights of Camelot would have been known by their attributed arms, and these arms were used at the pageants which came to be known as Round Tables. The first documented Round Table took place in Sicily in 1223, where there were “imitations of adventures of Britain and the Round Table”. [14] Matthew Paris recorded some observations about one which was held at Saffron Walden in 1252. It was not a tournament in the strict sense of the word, but jousting between pairs of knights, presumably in the lists. An occasion recorded in more detail took place in France in 1278. It began with Queen Guinevere asking for help from the knights at an inaugural dinner. There were jousts, and in between were staged theatrical entertainments re-enacting stories from the romances. Edward I was a great exponent of these Arthurian events, at least six are documented between 1279 and 1302, but there were possibly many more. At one of them Edward is known to have played Arthur, and other knights played Lancelot, Gawain, Percival and Agravain, Bors, Gareth, Lionel, Mordred and Kay. [15] There were rounds of jousting, at meals in between which once again there were dramatic interludes, such as squires covered in blood riding into the hall with challenges to single combat. In another diversion a squire appeared disguised as a loathsome old hag and reproved Percival and Gawain for not being on the Grail quest.  The famous Winchester Round Table which still hangs in the Great Hall there was most probably constructed for when such an event was held at Winchester in 1285.[16]


The adoption of Arthurian arms by ordinary knights.

The knights of Edward I periodically took on the personae of knights of the Round Table for the purposes of entertainment, but doubtless also certain names or exploits of individual knights reminded the royal court of the stories which they had heard. For whatever reason, certain knights were allowed to adopt Arthurian arms. The best-known example is the use of the plain red shield of Sir Percival by Sir Amanieu de la Bret

(c. 1270-1326), as shown in the Falkirk roll of 1298.[17]  Sir Amanieu was one of the principal vassals of Edward I in Aquitaine, and the connection with Percival must have suggested itself at least in part because the latter was frequently surnamed le Bret (the Breton).

           The arms of Sir Lancelot were adopted by no less than two unrelated English knightly families in the thirteenth century, almost certainly after the arms were already well established in their Arthurian context. The first family was the Cornish baronial family of Bodrugan, the head of which was in the royal service in 1233, the second family is that of Byron. Both families provided prominent royal knights in the reign of Edward I, and both served at the battle of Boroughbridge in 1322, where their identical arms were recorded. Realising their mistake, the two families arrived at an amicable solution. Presumably the Bodrugans were able to show that they adopted the arms first, because they continued to use them unaltered, whereas the Byrons changed their arms to Argent three bends adduced gules.[18]

          Another example from England one might say represents the adoption of Arthurian arms by accident!  The arms of Sir Gawain were recorded in Thomas Jenyns’ Ordinary as being borne by the Earl of Clare, who must surely be identified as Gilbert de Clare who died in 1294, leaving a son who was a minor and the last of his line, killed at Bannockburn in 1314. This is fairly unequivocal evidence that the Earl of Clare was allowed to play Sir Gawain in one of Edward I’s Round Tables. The ancient arms of Clare, Or three chevrons gules are extremely well attested from seals and the like and the family most certainly did not use Gawain’s arms of Argent a quarter gules in any ordinary context.  In the Tudor era the compilers of the famous Rous Roll and of the Tewkesbury benefactors’ book were looking for arms to use as quarterings of descendants of the Clare family,and they lighted on this reference, believing that they had found the ancient arms of Clare. Thus were they adopted two centuries after the event.

          In France Sir Gawain’s original arms were adopted in the fourteenth century by the family of Crocquison, and in this case there may be a demonstrable Arthurian affinity. Pastoureau believes this family was descended from the family of Quieret, another cadet of which bore the same arms.[19] The Quieret appear to have been especially fond of Arthurian legend in that six family members were baptized with Arthurian names in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Tristan, Lionel, Bors x3 and Gawain himself). It should be noted that by the fourteenth century these older arms of Gawain had gone out of fashion. The arms were changed because a later version of Percival associated Gawain with Pope Gregory the Great, who armed him, and gave him the shield Gules an eagle or which had belonged to Judas Maccabaeus. [20] This led to an entirely new scheme for Gawain and his family based on the eagle, which was so successful that by the fifteenth century the earlier forms were quite forgotten. As a final development, after the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (1433-37) introduced the double headed eagle Gawain’s arms were changed again.

           Before leaving the original arms of Sir Gawain it is worth noting that King Edward III himself bore them at the Dunstable tournament of 1334, where he jousted in the name of Sir Lionel. This is not a paradox. He clearly wanted to be associated with the brilliant Gawain, who in fourteenth century England was regarded as the quintessential shining example of knighthood.  The name “Sir Lionel” was adopted by him during the period when his kingdom was under the de facto rule of his mother’s lover Mortimer, the man who overthrew Edward II.  It was a literary allusion to the fact that Lionel and his brother Sir Bors had grown up under the domination of an interloper lord who had made himself king at their father’s expense.[21] It is interesting the Edward eschewed the role of Arthur on that occasion, despite there being much evidence that he believed himself to be the living embodiment of that monarch.  Edward’s vision of kingship, it has been said, cannot be separated from the legends of King Arthur, and he later planned to resurrect the institution of the knights of the Round Table. Edward’s choice of Gawain instead is almost certainly a deliberate foil to Mortimer’s own rather ill advised dressing up as King Arthur at a Round Table which had taken place a few years earlier. Together with the use of the name Lionel, it was a way of publically stating that he was a better man than Mortimer.

            There is another excellent example from France of the adoption of Arthurian arms. Regnier Pot (d. 1432) chamberlain of three successive dukes of Burgundy, was known as Palamede during a tournament organised for a crusade in Prussia in 1389-90. He subsequently adopted the arms of Sir Palamedes “the saracen”(Checky argent and sable), son of a sultan of Babylon who became a knight of the Round Table, but with the addition of  Two scimitars bendwise gules garnished or, as if to reinforce the Saracen message. One wonders if he might have acquired the nickname because he used a scimitar in battle. These arms were quartered with the ancient arms of Pot, Or a fess azure, as seen both in the Golden Fleece Armorial and on the splendid tomb of his grandson Philippe Pot in the Louvre.


[14] David Crouch, Tournament (London, 2005), pp. 116-119.

[15] Julian Munby, Richard Barber and Richard Brown, Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor (Woodbridge, 2007), pp. 92-93.

[16] Martin Biddle, King Arthur’s Round Table, an archaeological investigation (Woodbridge, 2000).

[17] Michel Pastoureau, Les chevaliers de la Table Ronde (Lathuile, 2006), pp. 68-70.

[18] The earliest definitive use of the original Byron arms is in the Parliamentary Roll of arms of circa 1312, while a seal impression of Bodrugan occurs a little earlier, dating to 1307, see Cornwall Record Office ME/644. The Bodrugan family were still using the unaltered arms as late as 1440, see Davies Gilbert, A parochial history of Cornwall, vol 2 (London, 1838), pp. 106-7.

[19] Pastoureau, op.cit., pp. 66-67.

[20] Brault, op. cit., pp. 41-42.

[21] Ian Mortimer, The perfect king: the life of Edward III, father of the English Nation (London, 2006), pp. 114-6.

Arms of Sir Gawain and his brothers.  Drawing by Paul A. Fox

Figure 5: Arms of Sir Gawain and his brothers.

Drawing by Paul A. Fox

The significance of attributed arms

From the very beginning of heraldry coats of arms were being devised for the great heroes of the past both real and imaginary, also for saints, and for esteemed ancestors. Far from being an irrelevant game, this is telling us something important about what heraldry meant to the medieval mind. These attributed arms were displayed in books and rolls, in buildings, and in jousts and entertainments. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the legends of the knights of the Round Table were developed to reflect the behaviour and preoccupations of an age of chivalry. The present and the fictional past merged together in a way that stirred the emotions. Giving arms to the knights of old helped to remind a warrior society of the great deeds which they were expected to emulate, and in so doing gave heraldry an enhanced dignity.

           A spiritual element must also be considered, because the stories of the Round Table give a clear sense that shields of arms could be accorded both sacred and magical significance. All the accoutrements of knighthood were blessed during the ceremony of knighting, and their bearer was sanctified by the wearing of them. The two most important objects were the sword and the shield, but the latter was painted with the device of its owner and this made it an especially potent symbol. The special veneration accorded to the trappings of battle is evidenced by their deposition beside knight’s tombs in churches. There was a vogue for nobles to represent the shields of friends and relatives on their tombs, enabling them to benefit from the prayers made for the tomb owner by the chantry priest. The shield here not only represented the individual, in a sense it was that individual. This connection with heaven might work in the other direction, as with an image or a relic of a saint. The arms were tangibly connected with the next world, and those who honoured them night hope to receive support from the other world.  It did not matter that the arms were only attributed, because once bestowed they identified that individuals, and so the connection was made. If shields were considered to be sacred then in a sense to devise one for a long dead person was to sanctify the past, while at the same time bringing the past into the present.  Far from being an irrelevant medieval game, the tradition of attributed arms, going back as it does to the very dawn of heraldry, is crucial to understanding their appeal.

          Few characters from the past can have had more influence on the Middle Ages than King Arthur. Our knightly ancestors sought to relive his life by emulating his imagined achievements. The stories of Arthur not only taught them how they should behave in battle, but they helped to bring romance to heraldry, and thus, it was with the posthumous aid of  “the once and future king”  that heraldry and chivalry  developed and flourished together. 

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