There was a serious amount of consternation when Queen Mary set out to marry Philip II of Spain. English politics had been through a thoroughly turbulent period. Lady Jane Grey had held the throne for a matter of days before Mary reclaimed it; tensions between the Protestant and Catholic branches of the nobility were at an all-time high. For an English queen to suggest she should marry a dyed in the wool Spanish Catholic was to rewind all the gains of the English Reformation.
It could mean civil war. It would almost certainly mean bloodshed.
So they did the obvious thing. They had Philip swear that if King Arthur returned, he’d give up the throne.
Just so we’re clear on that, I’ll say it again. A Catholic king, as a condition of marrying an English queen in 1554, promised to cede the throne to King Arthur, the legendary British warlord who may or may not have existed some time in the 5th or 6th century, over a thousand years earlier.
And they did it all with a straight face. In earnest. They were serious.
You see, there was a long standing and deeply held tradition amongst the English people that Arthur had not actually died in his final battle at Camlann, and that one day when he was needed, he would return to resume his throne and rescue the British people. I kid you not – there were riots over this whenever people scoffed at the story. Philip taking his oath was one way of keeping the people from rebellion.
They’d believed it for a long time. We’ve got records of Geoffrey of Monmouth proclaiming in the middle of the twelfth century that Arthur had survived his battle. Even earlier than that, William of Malmesbury famously observed of Arthur that ‘his grave is nowhere seen’. There was no known grave; therefore he still lived, and would return.
This story was so firmly held that when the monks of Glastonbury claimed that they’d dug up a coffin that bore Arthur’s name, people just assumed they’d made it up. It had to be an internment scam…
England will soon crown her third King Charles, and as Paul urged Timothy, “requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving [should] be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority…” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Given the fates that befell the two previous King Charles (the first beheaded by Parliament, the second famously overseeing the Great Plague and Great Fire of London in the span of a year), we have both a low bar and good grounds to want Charles III to get over it.
But how should we pray for him? The role of the English monarch is difficult and subtle, and he will always be compared to his mother and her well-regarded reign. The tabloids would have us praying for familial harmony; the British national anthem for a long and victorious regime.
We don’t know what King Charles understands of the Christian faith, nor what he believes – but that should not hold us back from praying for him, for God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). And one day he will have to cede his throne – not to an Arthur, but to the true King who will return, our Lord Jesus, whose grave is nowhere seen, but at whose throne every knee will bow.
Anthony Douglas | Archdeacon of Wollongong