Wednesday, 12 August 2015

King Arthur and the Mystery of the Round Table

Mention the Round Table and most will think of the wooden relic hanging on the wall of the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. Yet, there are a multitude of claimants to the title of King Arthur's Round Table ranging from prehistoric earthworks to the 700 year old Winchester table top.

In Caxton's Preface to Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur he responded to those who doubted Arthur's existence by citing several Arthurian relics as evidence: " may see his sepulchre in the monastery of Glastonbury.... in the castle of Dover ye may see Gawaine’s skull, and Cradok’s mantle: at Winchester the Round Table"

Winchester Round Table
Malory had made Winchester his Camelot, no doubt influenced by the Round Table in the Great Hall there and named his work, appropriately, the last great Arthurian epic, as "The Whole Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights of the Round Table". Sixteen years later Caxton published his edition in 1485 as "Morte d'Arthur" (The Death of Arthur), naming the work simply after the last book, the title by which most of us are familiar with Malory's work today.

The Winchester as Camelot concept influenced the Tudor monarchs of Malory's time who claimed descent from King Arthur. Henry VII named his firstborn son after the legendary King, with his wife Elizabeth of York compelled to give birth to his heir at Saint Swithun's Priory (now Winchester Cathedral Priory), i.e. Camelot, on 20th September 1486. Arthur was Henry and Elizabeth's eldest child. But the young Arthur never achieved his destiny as King Arthur II; six months after marrying the young Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, Arthur died on 2nd April 1502, at Ludlow, Shropshire on the Welsh Marches, victim of an unknown ailment.

Caxton didn't seem to agree with Malory, preferring South Wales for Arthur's capital, perhaps following Geoffrey of Monmouth, of which he added, "And yet of record remain in witness of him in Wales, in the town of Camelot, the great stones and the marvellous works of iron lying under the ground, and royal vaults, which divers now living have seen."

It is thought Caxton was referring to the Roman remains at Caerwent or the legionary fortress at Caerleon in South Wales. And here we find another Round Table; the Roman Amphitheatre, which until excavation in 1926, was a circular earthwork enclosing a  grass-covered oval hollow. Recently, in 2010, another City of the Legion, Chester, claimed their amphitheatre was the real Round Table.

Information board at Arthur's Round Table, near Penrith, Cumbria
The Round Table has a remarkable longevity in connection with the Arthurian legend; prehistoric megalithic monuments are named as such. Arthur's Round Table near Penrith in Cumbria is a Neolithic henge, dating from about 2,000 BC. We are told that this ancient earthwork has nothing to do with Arthur - but there are many prehistoric monuments associated with the King.

Often the capstone of a Welsh cromlech is named as Arthur's Table, Bwrdd Arthur. Other ancient sites bearing the same name include an ancient hillfort situated at Llanddona, Anglesey. And then there is the enigmatic earth mound at Stirling, Stirlingshire, known as  King's Knot, or Arthur's Round Table.

Yet, for all these prehistoric monuments that have attracted Arthurian names or associations, the Round Table is entirely absent from the early Welsh poetry of Y Cynfeirdd and even Geoffrey of Monmouth.

It is not until 1155 when the first mention of Arthur's Round Table appears in the "Roman de Brut" of the Norman poet Robert Wace, in what is basically a rewrite of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. The Chronicle, or Brut, tradition continued with Layamon, a cleric from Worcestershire in England, who produced the first English version of the Arthurian epic and said the Round Table could seat 1600 but was oddly portable. Was Layamon's Round Table a meeting place, or an assembly, that could move around the country?

Further development in Arthurian Romance sees Joseph’s Grail Table at Cardoel, said to have been a prototype for the Round Table, made by Embreis (Merlin). The Round Table passes to Gwenhwyfar's father which Arthur then inherits as her dowry.

The Grail Table
Robert De Boron and the Vulgate Cycle identify Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, as being responsible for the actual construction of the table, after hearing Merlin's tales of St. Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail Table. The table of the Grail stories has twelve seats and one empty place to mark the betrayal of Judas, known as the 'Siege Perilous,' but in Merlin's table the seat was reserved for the most pure of knights who would sit there after attaining the Grail.

The Winchester Round Table has been dated to 1250–1280, during the reign of Edward I, an Arthurian enthusiast. The current paintwork was done by order of Henry VIII during the first quarter of the 16th century. As we have seen the table at Winchester was inspirational to Thomas Malory and believed to have been a genuine historical relic in his day.

In the next few posts we will explore some of these concepts of Arthur's Round Table in greater detail.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

King Arthur's Round Table Eamont Bridge, Cumbria

* * *

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.