A companion piece to Episode 121: Farcical Aquatic Ceremony
Written by Laurel Hostak Jones
A Rallying Symbol
It’s the year 932 AD for some reason. Mist sweeps across the moors. Out of the fog, a noble figure emerges, clad in chain mail and a golden crown. At his hip, he bears Excalibur, the sword of kings. Upon his breast is embroidered the symbol of royalty, power, and virtue: a golden sun with beaming rays, all-seeing eyes, and a commanding mustache. Ah yes, this is a king. King of the Britons, he’s called. Out of the darkness of the collapsing Roman Empire, he rose to fight against invading Saxons, leading troops of all the land’s tribes to victory. Hundreds of men knelt before that rallying symbol, that distinguished emblem, that mustachioed celestial body. For Britain!
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I cast our historical and mythological lens on the beloved 1975 comedy Monty Python & the Holy Grail. By the end of an hour+ of conversation, we realized how much more there was to say about the medieval satire. In this blog, I’d like to focus in on one particular aspect of the film that didn’t make it into our discussion, and that’s the role of heraldry in Monty Python’s raucous interpretation of the Arthurian Legend. To understand this, we’ll need a bit of legendary and historical context.
Countless texts exist that describe the life and deeds of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. The legends emerged out of the state of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries—a Dark Age if there ever was one. The Roman Empire, facing invasions and internal problems of their own, withdrew troops from the British Isles. The people of Britain, who had at this point been part of the Empire for centuries, suddenly found their borders open to invasion and attack, and were left to fend for themselves. Because of the lack of literacy and dependable contemporary sources, our understanding of the exact events following the Roman withdrawal in 410 AD is full of gaps. It’s from this mysterious soup—and some corroborating archaeological evidence—that tales of Arthur are born. The scholarly debate about the existence of Arthur rages on today, with some advocating for a single figure upon which the legend is based (see Geoffrey Ashe’s The Discovery of King Arthur), others suggesting that several amalgamated figures form the basis, and still others rejecting the historicity of King Arthur outright. What we do know is that the King Arthur we imagine is more legend than fact. There were no knights or stone castles until about the 11th century, Merlin is absorbed from a different tradition entirely, and the most famous non-Arthur character in the legendaria, Lancelot, is a 12th century literary addition from the French. If there was an Arthur, or a similar single figure on which he’s based, he probably wouldn’t have been called king, and would have been more like a tribal warlord with little of the nobility and decorum we see in the romances.
It’s in a series of chronicles written in Latin that the historical picture of Arthur takes shape. Gildas, who writes in the 6th century (and would have been a contemporary of Arthur or the figure on which he’s based), does not mention Arthur by name, but does claim to have been born in the same year as the Battle of Mount Badon, something that’s frequently referenced as Arthur’s decisive victory against the Saxons. Later chronicles, such as the Annales Cambriae (Annals of Cambria, probably 10th century) and Nennius’ Historia Brittonum (9th century), do mention Arthur by name. As the deeds and victories of Arthur start to form on paper, a pattern starts to emerge among the Latin chroniclers, who describe in varying detail Arthur’s armorial bearing in battle. According to the chronicles, Arthur bears the image of the Virgin Mary, either upon his shoulder, on or inside his shield. This establishes Arthur as a Christian king, positioned against pagan enemies; later stories, including those surrounding the Holy Grail, will rely on this convention.
But the Virgin Mary is not the primary heraldic symbol with which we associate the legendary king. When asked to identify King Arthur’s banners, even those with only a passing knowledge of the legends would likely suggest the dragon. This association comes from the literary material around Arthur’s family, formally established in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century blockbuster account, Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, bore the dragon banner, and therefore his heir carries the same symbol into combat. Combined with the political provenance the dragon banner lent to the young King Arthur, the symbol itself inspires devotion and fear.
A Bunch of Jerks Swinging Swords at Each Other
Heraldry, here defined as the display of coats of arms, served a compelling purpose in the Middle Ages. Though its origins are difficult to trace, we know that medieval heraldry was in use as early as the 11th century, as evidenced by the depictions of warriors in the Bayeux Tapestry, which illustrates William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings, 1066. On a very practical level, medieval warriors bore unique, personalized symbols on their shields or armor as a means of distinguishing themselves from a crowd of similarly armored fighters. The battlefield is a chaotic place, and without some visual indication of the man inside the armor, you’ve got a bunch of identical jerks swinging swords at each other. Heraldry helped identify whose side you were on.
It may sound like a simple idea—choosing an emblem to represent you on the battlefield. If I dressed up in full plate armor, completely obscuring my face and body, but emblazoned the image of my two cats across my chest, you’d know it was me immediately. But imagine I wear that into combat, not realizing that someone on the enemy’s side also owns two adorable cats, one tabby and one tuxedo. Big trouble. So medieval heraldry had to be specific and had to be regulated. A medieval family would develop a heraldic device and standards for shape, image, color—no deviations. For example, you might have a golden lion, standing on two legs and roaring, across a blue field. If another family’s heraldry looked too similar to yours, you’d have to take them to court and prove that you’ve been carrying the standard longer. A separate branch of your family might keep some elements, like the golden lion, but set it on a red field, or add a border to delineate the branches. In most cases, these subtle differences, called marks of cadency, also helped to define the nobler and lesser houses of the same family. For a great explainer on heraldry, check out Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives: The Knights, in which a member of the College of Arms designs a special coat of arms for the Holy Grail director himself.
Heraldry developed such a rigid orthodoxy, and was practiced so faithfully that it evolved into almost a religion for medieval noble families. The knightly class, which first emerged in the 11th century as little more than a service position—and a temporary one at that—had fully coalesced with the nobility by the 14th century, a result of the growing costs of maintaining a horse and bearing expensive arms as well as the shifting focus toward a chivalric ideal. Archers and trebuchets made mounted warfare less of a necessity and more of a liability, but knighthood persisted (and does to this day) as a mark less of martial prowess and more of nobility and virtue. Medieval heraldry demanded that one’s nobility be strictly codified and illustrated for display. The designs were meaningful and cherished, with many medieval standards still borne by surviving noble families in the present day.
The chivalric literature of the period reflects all of this. In Chrétien de Troyes’ 12th century works, Arthur’s knights frequently get themselves into trouble by passing through dangerous forests wearing the wrong armor. In Sir Thomas Malory’s landmark text Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Lancelot, the greatest knight of the world, finds that no one will go against him in tournaments anymore for fear of losing. Desperate to hold onto the glory, Lancelot ignores Guinevere’s pleas and suits up in disguise for a tournament, prepared to fight against the side of Arthur and his men. No one recognizes Lancelot, and his opponent deals him a devastating, near-mortal wound.
Perhaps the Arthurian text that best engages with the relationship between knighthood and heraldry is the poetic masterpiece Sir Gawain & the Green Knight. Composed in the late 14th century by an unknown poet—sometimes called “the Pearl Poet,” based on their suggested authorship of three other poems collected in the Gawain manuscript, Pearl, Patience, and Purity—Sir Gawain & the Green Knight follows Arthur’s nephew Gawain on an adventure filled with magic, mystery, and complex moral dilemmas. The events of the poem are set in motion by the arrival of a massive green man at the king’s Christmas dinner, who challenges the knights to a beheading game. Gawain rises to the challenge and beheads the monstrous man, but to everyone’s surprise, the Green Knight picks up his head from the floor and speaks. Gawain is to meet the Green Knight at his chapel in one year, at which time the Green Knight will return Gawain’s blow. Things don’t look great for our hero as he sets off to fulfill his end of the bargain—but before much else happens, the poem gives us a striking description of Gawain’s armorial bearing.
Upon his shield, Gawain bears a Pentangle. The Gawain Poet takes great pains to describe the symbolism of this five-pointed star, drawn in one endless knot. The points represent the five virtues of knighthood: fellowship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. There’s attention paid to Gawain’s martial ability as well, and emphasis on his devotion to God and the Virgin Mary.
Gawain’s use of the Pentangle as his standard indicates total knightly perfection, and all who see this symbol make the connection. I’ll spare you the lengthy summary of the events of the poem—seeing as most of the English-speaking world studied it in high school!—but Gawain finds himself in a moral bind and essentially fails in his task. The symbol of his failure to live up to the standards of the chivalric ideal is a green girdle, given to him by the wife of his host, Lord Bertilak. Gawain bears the girdle as a mark of his shame, and by the end of the poem, the girdle is as synonymous with Gawain as the Pentangle. His heraldry symbolically evolves; the image of knightly perfection makes room for improvement.
Heraldic Symbolism in Monty Python & the Holy Grail
Gawain is not a character in Monty Python & the Holy Grail, but his adventure with the Green Knight is referenced in one of the film’s most beloved sketches. As Arthur approaches a clearing in the forest, he comes upon a Black Knight facing off with a Green Knight.
The primary joke of the sketch—the fact that the Black Knight seems completely unfazed by having his limbs hacked off one by one—also alludes to the Green Knight’s casual indifference to having his head lopped off. Monty Python’s Black Knight bears a red boar across his tunic. The hunt for the wild boar is a recurring folklore motif, making multiple appearances in Arthurian literature—including in Sir Gawain & the Green Knight and as a climactic event in one of the earliest Arthurian stories from the Welsh tradition, Culhwch and Olwen.
It’s clear from early on in Monty Python & the Holy Grail that the troupe were aware of the role of heraldry in medieval knighthood, and that they carefully designated symbols for each of their central characters. Let’s take a look at Arthur’s knights and see if we can decipher the heraldic clues.
Let’s start with Sir Robin, the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot! Added by the Pythons to round out Arthur’s Grail company, but not attested in any of the legendary material, Sir Robin is accompanied by a band of minstrels who sing the praises of his courageous deeds. “He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp…” they sing, overcompensating for the knight’s cowardice. Robin’s heraldic symbol is a black chicken passant (walking/one leg raised) across a green and white-checked field. The meaning is rather obvious: the chicken represents Robin’s gutlessness compared with his braver counterparts. Interestingly, chickens—particularly roosters—do enjoy status as a heraldic charge to this day, whether as symbols on the coats of arms of families, nations, or municipalities.
Sir Lancelot the Brave is probably the most famous character in the Arthurian Legend besides Arthur himself. Known as the greatest knight in the world, the right-hand man of Arthur, and the lover of Queen Guinevere, the Pythons deliver a depiction of Lancelot that manages to capture both his grandiosity and his ridiculousness. A favorite sequence, Swamp Castle, sees Lancelot barge into a wedding and slaughter a number of innocent guests with the intent of saving a beautiful lady. And it’s… kind of spot on.
Lancelot’s heraldic charge is, interestingly, a dragon rampant (rearing) across a black and white field. While the dragon seems an appropriate symbol for the bravest of knights, it’s also the banner most closely associated with Arthur. Jeez Lance, you already boinked his wife, can’t you let Arthur have anything? I’ll let this one go, though, as the legendary Lancelot does have some connections to the dragon. In the massive 13th century prose Vulgate Cycle, also known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, the great knight is credited with slaying multiple dragons on his quests. The dragon was a prominent feature of medieval heraldry, and some accounts note that Uther Pendragon’s coat of arms featured two crowned golden dragons—so conceivably Lancelot’s white dragon would pass under the radar as different enough from the Pendragon family herald.
Oh sweet, pure, chaste Sir Galahad. His inclusion in Holy Grail is a necessity, as according to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, Malory, and most modern works, Galahad is in fact the knight who achieves the Grail. In the movie, his arc absorbs some of Perceval’s from Chrétien’s original Grail tale (i.e. the Grail Castle), and the “Castle of Maidens” is a prominent tournament site in Malory. Galahad’s defining feature, in the literature and in Holy Grail, is his virginity—and indeed it’s the reason that he, and not his companions Perceval or Bors, is able to achieve the Grail. His chastity is inspired by his deep devotion to Christianity, making him more monk than traditional knight. So it’s fitting that he Pythons gave him the simple heraldic charge of a crimson cross over a white field. The white evokes purity and chastity, and the red alludes the Holy Grail itself, as the cup Christ drank from at the Last Supper and/or the cup that caught his blood on the Crucifix.
My favorite heraldic charge in Monty Python & the Holy Grail is Sir Bedivere’s. Bedivere is one of the original characters of the early Arthurian Legend, along with Arthur, Kay, and Gawain, who all show up in the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, he assumes the role of Arthur’s cupbearer; in a medieval court, the cupbearer was responsible for literally serving drinks to the king, indicating a high rank and supreme level of trust. In some of the stories, Bedivere is the knight who casts Excalibur into the lake as Arthur lies dying on the battlefield (though later versions give this role to Griflet).
Bedivere’s shield and tunic in the film are emblazoned with a tree across a blue and white field bisecting it. Half of the tree appears to be leafless, with the other half bearing leaves. And no, I don’t just like it because of its resemblance to the Midnight Myth logo…
Bedivere is played by Terry Jones, co-director of the film and Monty Python’s best resource on medieval history. Welsh-born, Jones went on to write numerous nonfiction works about the period and hosted the aforementioned Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives television program. I tend to think that the highly specific imagery of the half-alive, half-dead tree is a clever nod to another piece of the Arthurian puzzle that’s omitted from Holy Grail: the romance of Tristan and Iseult. A massive cycle of tales with origins predating the Arthurian matter, the Tristan/Iseult narrative was quickly absorbed into the Arthurian tradition, with Tristan eventually taking his place among Arthur’s companions. Concisely, the narrative concerns two adulterous lovers who carry out an affair under the nose of Iseult’s husband, King Mark of Cornwall—who happens to be Tristan’s uncle. A notable Welsh version of the story finds Tristan and Iseult withdrawing to live together in the woods, and the situation is so disgraceful that King Arthur has to be brought in to settle the matter. With Solomonian diplomacy, Arthur suggests that Mark and Tristan share Iseult; one will live with her when there are leaves on the trees, and the other will live with her when the leaves have fallen. Mark chooses to live with Iseult in the winter, when the nights are longer, but Iseult points out that evergreen trees never lose their leaves, and therefore, she’ll stay with Tristan year-round.
And now for the million dollar question: What the hell is up with that mustachioed sun?
Before I go ahead and read way too far into this—because I will—let’s first admire the joke. I probably saw this movie a dozen times before I even noticed the mustache. The very act of not drawing conscious attention to it makes it one of those fantastic sleeper jokes that makes this movie so incredibly rewatchable.
Okay let’s go in.
In heraldry, this particular sun would be referred to as “sun in splendor, with face.” Pretty straightforward. It’s a common heraldic charge of nations and governments, but for our purposes, its most significant historical usage is by Edward II of England. Edward ruled during the early 14th century, marrying Isabella of France in an attempt to pacify ongoing tensions between the two kingdoms. Upon his birth in Wales—in a castle known for its connections to the Roman Empire—prophets declared that Edward would be a new King Arthur, and would lead the English to glory. The things is… Edward’s reign did not turn out to be so glorious. Most historians consider him a failure as king. Why would the Pythons make this association? Could they be hinting that Arthur… maybe got a little blown out of proportion and isn’t that big a deal?
We could make further connections to Louis XIV of France, known as the “Sun King,” given the literary significance of the French Arthurian tradition, but that feels like more of a stretch.
The mustache… Well if I don’t say it now, I may never get the chance to again. I am OBSESSED with the role of facial hair in the Arthurian Legend. I could write a book about beards and hair in medieval literature. As early on as Culhwch and Olwen, which I’ve referenced as one of the first Arthurian stories, facial hair has served as everything from a premise for homosocial bonding (Arthur and the hero, Culhwch, bond as kin when Arthur agrees to shave Culhwch in the middle of his feast hall, because yeah, sure!) to an indicator of one’s maturity (the Green Knight mocks Arthur’s knights for being “beardless boys”). Welsh folklore includes a warrior who aspires to weave a cloak made of the beards of kings—and later stories have this warrior meet with Arthur, hoping to take his beard as a prize. The beard stuff is EVERYWHERE and it’s WEIRD and it’s WONDERFUL. I can only hope that Monty Python were at least somewhat aware of the pattern and included this nod to the supremely strange and hairy corners of the legend.
I said on the podcast this week that Monty Python & the Holy Grail is, unequivocally, the best cinematic adaptation of the Arthurian Legend, and I stand by that assertion. From the biting satire to its treatment of the characters, Holy Grail upholds many of the literary conventions associated with Arthur while simultaneously deconstructing and questioning them. In its clever employment of heraldic devices, Holy Grail not only engages with this deeply important medieval practice, but uses it to flesh out and comment on the aspects of the legend that don’t fit neatly within the movie. From the wild boar to the mustache, the characters’ heraldic charges are Easter eggs for the literature and history nerds among us, and they betray the profound intelligence and wit of this seemingly absurd comedy. Ha-HA!