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8 - The Tomb of the Kings: Imperial Space in Arthur’s Camelot

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 April 2021

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Summary

When Arthur comes to the throne in Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, his rule is challenged (as in some of Malory's sources) by forces both external and internal. In Malory, the internal resistance comes in two waves, related but in a slightly unclear way: an initial rebellion at his coronation by kings angry at the accession of ‘a berdles boye that was come of lowe blood’ (12.9–10), and a second following an act of political infanticide combined with an invasion from North Wales. This Welsh invasion is led by Ryons of North Wales and his brother Nero now in alliance with Lot of Lothian and the Orkneys (Lot being a driving force in the initial rebellion). After the final defeat of this combined force, Arthur orders the erection of a grandiose monument both to his victory and to the memories of the dead:

But of all the twelve kyngis Kynge Arthure lette make the tombe of Kynge Lotte passynge rychely, and made hys tombe by hymselff.

And than Arthure lette make twelve images of laton and cooper, and overgylte with golde in the sygne of the twelve kynges, and eche one of hem helde a tapir of wexe in hir honde that brente nyght and day. And Kynge Arthure was made in the sygne of a fygure stondynge aboven them with a swerde drawyn in hys honde, and all the twelve fygures had countenaunce lyke unto men that were overcom. All thys made Merlion by hys subtyle craufte. (62.2–11)

The reconciliation between Lot and Arthur, found in previous versions (as discussed below), is here replaced by unity through elimination, caught in an image of conquest and domination. The description of the tombs stands out in a Camelot otherwise only faintly sketched: we know more about this aspect of St Stephen's Cathedral, where this tomb is located (61.30–31), than any other physical location in the Morte.

In this essay, I will argue that this monument is far more important to Malory's over-arching purpose than has been previously acknowledged: its spatial location, at the heart of Arthur's most famous castle, anchors Arthurian claims to control over the various kingdoms and regions which make up his empire.

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Arthurian Literature XXXVI
Sacred Space and Place in Arthurian Romance
, pp. 175 - 192
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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