King Arthur's Death

By Michael Smith

An epic poem of the fall of kings, vibrantly translated and stunningly illustrated with linocut prints by the author of Unbound’s Sir Gawain

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Monarchical loyalty in the Middle Ages - a key to understanding the King Arthur story

Key to an understanding of mediaeval stories such as King Arthur is the concept of the “Familia Regis” or royal household – a close-knit group of supporters and servants loyal to their monarch. At the same time, the monarch is loyal to his or her followers. It is a symbiotic relationship which, when upset, can have dramatic consequences.

In King Arthur’s Death – the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the loyalty of Arthur to his knights and vice versa is crucial to an understanding of the poem and how its contemporary audience understood it too.

In the fourteenth century, when this poem was written, historians have reported that the size of the king’s court in England was far outstripping the intimate groups of lords which perhaps typified the early Middle Ages.

Whereas once kings managed their affairs through trusted lords and senior officials, now individual departments began to grow and expand, often as much due to largesse as to functional necessity. Often these departments, for example the exchequer, would not only have key members but also other functionaries carrying out a variety of lesser and lesser duties of often quite arcane relevance.

The advantages of loyalty

Among the advantages of such positions were rich rewards of land, a guaranteed payment - whether a wage, regular payment or other reward – and accommodation. On the flipside, personal freedoms were often restricted. In an age of income uncertainty for many, such positions were highly valued and lightly surrendered. Loyalty to the king was crucial.

In King Arthur’s Death - the Alliterative Morte Arthure, such service is often alluded to. At the beginning of the poem we are aware of a group of loyal higher knights and lords (for example Sir Cador, Sir Lot and Sir Lancelot) who appear to be part of an inner sanctum and are indeed removed to the Giant’s Tower to confer about the Roman ambassadors. Such lords in a contemporary society equate to the highest dukedoms in the land.

These lords control the land on behalf of their king; they have reached the apogee of social climbing and as such are intensely loyal. This is also why Mordred’s subsequent betrayal of Arthur is seen with such anger and contempt.

Ambassadorial status and its meaning

Yet it is how a king appears to all his supporters which guarantees him loyalty. When the Roman ambassadors appear at the beginning of the story, Arthur impresses his visitors with a display of magnificence (a rich array of ever-varying food and drink) whilst modestly downplaying his largesse. Such displays are intended to engender the loyalty of his lords and impress foreign dignitaries.

Hence, in the same scene, when the ambassadors themselves behave in a manner as if contemptuous of Arthur, this is seen as an affront to convention and the king becomes so furious that his guests cower at his feet. Contempt for a host is similarly the case later in the poem, when Gawain enters the tent of the Roman emperor and treats him with equal disdain at his dinner table and in front of his assembled high lords.

In mediaeval diplomacy, ambassadorial status raised the social rank of the ambassador above that he conventionally held in society. Hence, as cousin to King Arthur, Sir Gawain now becomes almost a king in himself, which enables him to be so bold in front of Lucius. However, Gawain’s subsequent scornful beheading of Sir Gayous at the table takes this a step too far; suggesting to the reader (as is revealed at the end of the poem) a particular impetuosity which may have been key to his own downfall.

The importance of generosity

It is fundamental to a reading of this magnificent poem that the largesse of a king is what ensures loyalty and guarantees power. This is highlighted not only in the actions of Arthur himself but also how his lords refer to him.

On a number of occasions, when rallying forces, senior lords of the Round Table allude to Arthur’s generosity. This is not some random statement of the king’s magnanimity but a reminder that the knights’ status and renown is dependent on the king so the king must be rewarded now by loyalty.

An example of Arthur’s benevolence for which the poem is noted is when he rewards a herald with a “hundred pound holding” at Hampton for bringing him good news of his knights during the siege of Metz. At first glance, the reward of land for simply conveying a message seems extravagant but this is not as unusual as it appears. The fifteenth century writer Philippe de Commynes, in his famous Memoires, refers to a generous financial gift given to him and the Lord of Bouchage by Louis XI as a reward for simply telling the king of the victory of the Swiss over the Burgundians at Morat in 1476.

Mutual encouragement and support

While reading an epic poem of this nature at times to us might seem incredible in terms of its narrative, the reality of contemporary society makes the poem entirely rational in terms of how people respond to each other and the actions they take.

It is for the love of Arthur and the inherent nature of his generosity as lord which guarantees him his followers even after the siege of Metz when he changes from Just War king to semi-crazed tyrant. When Gawain leads his tiny band against the masses of Mordred, he does so through love of his monarch; Arthur’s reciprocal love for Gawain when he finds his dead body is part of the same motif.

Of course, it is at the end of the poem when Arthur faces down Mordred that we see the apogee of the concept of the Familia Regis. Arthur’s men, massively outnumbered, fight Mordred because he has betrayed the very concept of royal loyalty (indeed, Mordred even takes Guinevere as his wife and in this poem – uniquely – has children by her). At the end, in victory though dying, Arthur laments the loss of his great household in an astonishingly moving display of family love.

In unpicking the Alliterative Morte Arthure, it is fundamental to an understanding of the poem that monarchy was not the far-removed constitutional edifice it is today. Rather, the very fabric of society was held together by reciprocal love, loyalty and support. It was an inherently intimate coexistence of mutually supportive friends, a brotherhood, as the Gawain-poet calls it. Something which Richard II, who in some way is the shadow behind this great poem, never really grasped.

The mediaeval Royal Family was much greater than the monarch; it was indeed a fundamental component of the fabric and organisation of society.



Michael Smith

Author, Translator, Printmaker

PS. My translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure publishes in September this year. Please help spread the message to others who might be interested in supporting the book as a patron. Don’t forget, there are still some super Pledge Rewards available (including original linocut prints - see here) if you would like to increase your own pledge – or pledge on behalf of a friend.

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