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medieval

King Arthur’s Westminster: A Virtual Medieval Walk

Matt Clancy takes us on a virtual tour of Arthurian London. In this article, he reflects on the traditions and reiterations of the medieval legend of Arthur, and its continued association with Westminster Abbey.

In these uncertain times, we may find ourselves without many of our usual networks and support groups. This blogpost is inspired by a walk I designed for the Medieval and Early Modern Reading Group at Birkbeck, University of London. Naturally, the walk could not go ahead as planned, but the pandemic has left me thinking about how we might revise and replicate this kind of collaborative experience in ways that are safely socially distant.

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Our theme for this walk was ‘King Arthur’s Westminster’, based on my wider research into how medieval audiences regarded the Arthurian tradition. Westminster was the medieval seat of monarchical power, separate from the mercantile City of London, so it is unsurprising that Arthurian connections have recurred there across the centuries. I planned a short walk around ten points of interest, all within a mile or so of Westminster underground station. A map and key follow at the end of this blogpost, which the enterprising online walker can follow using Google Streetview.

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Inevitably, in an attempt to find a walking route that logically linked the ten locations, the associated narrative would have to be told in a non-linear order. This in itself represents what Arthurian Studies is like – we do not have any facts about Arthur himself, if you wish to believe he existed, so the associated traditions themselves become the facts that we have to interpret. We cannot prove whether Arthur existed, but we do know that Arthurianism, the belief in the legendary king and his chivalric knights, did exist, especially in the medieval period.

My focus here is on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the first full Middle English prose version of the Arthurian tradition, written c. 1469-70, and first printed by William Caxton in 1485. Malory adapted a range of sources, notably the French Vulgate Lancelot-Grail cycle, but he consciously located his Arthurian narratives in recognisable fifteenth-century locations. For example, he places Camelot at Winchester, perhaps inspired by the location there of a Round Table created for Edward I (r. 1272-1307).

Malory similarly incorporates Westminster into the narrative. For example, after the death of Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat (now better known as Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott), her “corpse and the bed all was led the next way unto Thames, and there… were put into Thames; and so the man steered the barge unto Westminster,” where her lover, Sir Lancelot, ensures her burial. The location of this sequence in Westminster is original to Malory; he also uses “the meadow beside Westminster” as a testing ground, where Lancelot defends Queen Guinevere’s honour. Malory maps the events he found in the French romances on to contemporary locations which he associated with the monarchy.

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This association is rooted in the use of Westminster Abbey for coronation ceremonies, a tradition dating back to 1066 (although Arthur was traditionally crowned in Caerleon in Wales, following Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century chronicle History of the Kings of Britain). In keeping with this tradition, ‘Arthur’s Crown’ was given to Edward I after his victory over Llewellyn ap Gruffydd of Wales in 1283. Although neither side believed this to be an authentic Arthurian relic, there was political power in the English naming it as such. When the crown was taken to Westminster, it was used to crown both Edward and his son Alphonso as the symbolic successors of Arthur, emphasising their new authority over Wales.

At the heart of the Abbey stands the shrine of the saintly king, Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-66). In his ‘Preface’ to Le Morte Darthur in 1485, Caxton wrote that “in the abbey of Westminster, at St. Edward’s shrine, remaineth the print of [Arthur’s] seal in red wax closed in beryl, in which is written, Patricius Arthurus Britannie, Gallie, Germanie, Dacie, Imperator” (“The Noble Arthur, Emperor of Britain, Gaul, Germany, and Denmark”). Possession of this forged seal demonstrated the monarch’s imagined right to wield the same authority as Arthur, including a right to rule over the listed countries. Even though it held no legal weight, the seal presented itself as a useful propaganda tool, and its placement at the Confessor’s shrine implied its authenticity.

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Le Morte Darthur was the main inspiration for T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958), the great twentieth-century version of the Arthur legend, now best known through Disney’s 1963 adaptation of its first part, The Sword in the Stone. Like Malory, White locates key events in real locations, and he places the ‘Sword in the Stone’ narrative in the heart of Westminster, with Arthur and his adoptive family staying at an inn on Old Pye Street.

Screenshot from The Sword in the Stone (Disney, 1963).

As White describes it, “There was a quiet churchyard at the end of the street, with a kind of square in front of the church door. In the middle of the square there was a heavy stone with an anvil on it, and a fine new sword was struck through the anvil.” Needing to find a weapon for his foster-brother Kay, Arthur pulls out the sword, and is subsequently confirmed to be “rightwise king born of all England.” White’s vision of a quiet churchyard is at odds with Malory, who says the sword was found “in the greatest church of London, whether it were Paul’s or not the French book maketh no mention.” However, relocating the sequence to Westminster emphasises Arthur’s right to kingship.

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Malory and White both locate Arthurian narratives in the world as they inhabited it. The associations with Westminster are really associations with kingship, and symbolise monarchical power, in the same way that the Sword in the Stone and the seal symbolise Arthur’s imagined right to rule.

I have been thinking about what has been lost and gained by moving this walk online. The loss of our ability to meet in person is keenly felt, and clearly scholarship will be the last thing on many of our minds now. However, there is also comfort to be had in a growing sense of collaborative scholarship rapidly adapting to a virtual environment, and I hope that something of the creativity and connectedness we are now seeing may be carried forward when we eventually walk out of our isolation.

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A Virtual Medieval Walk

  1. Westminster Bridge, representing where the body of the Fair Maid of Astolat arrives at Westminster in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur.
  2. The Palace of Westminster, where the Queen’s Robing Room is decorated with nineteenth-century Arthurian murals, depicting scenes from Malory.
  3. The Jewel Tower, a fourteenth-century tower originally used to house the treasure of keen Arthurian Edward III (r. 1327-77).
  4. Parliament Square, representing the meadow beside Westminster, used in Malory as a testing ground.
  5. Westminster Abbey, where Arthur’s seal was kept, and the site of Caxton’s print shop.
  6. Westminster Abbey, where Arthur’s seal was kept, and the site of Caxton’s print shop.
  7. Westminster Abbey, where Arthur’s seal was kept, and the site of Caxton’s print shop.
  8. Caxton Street, named after the first English printer.
  9. Old Pye Street, the site of Arthur’s lodgings in The Once and Future King, represented here by the Munich Cricket Club pub.
  10. St Matthew’s Westminster, the closest church to Old Pye Street, and a possible location for the ‘Sword in the Stone.’

Additional details of the walk are available on my Twitter feed.


Further Readings:

  • Barron, W.R.J., ed. The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Life and Literature. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001.
  • Ditmas, Edith M.R. ‘The Cult of Arthurian Relics.’ Folklore 75.1 (1964): 19-33.
  • Rouse, Robert, and Cory Rushton. The Medieval Quest for Arthur. Stroud: Tempus, 2005.

Matt Clancy is a PhD candidate and Associate Tutor at Birkbeck, University of London, working on medieval material culture associated with the Arthurian traditions.