Thursday 28 December 2017

The Winchester Round Table

Top Ten Arthurian Locations: No 4

King Arthur's Round Table
In The Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain (Gothic Image, 1997), Geoffrey Ashe lists five landscape features known as 'Round Tables':

Caerleon, Gwent (Monmouthshire), claimed as the true 'Round Table' in reference to the ancient Roman amphitheatre of the Legionary fortress of Isca Silurum; an obvious candidate for the site of Arthur's 9th battle at the City of the Legion. Geoffrey of Monmouth has Arthur hold court here.

Mayburgh, in Cumbria, is another site bearing the name 'Arthur's Round Table'. Situated at the junction of the A6 and the B5320 south of Penrith is an earthwork with a central round platform. Said to date from the Bronze Age the connection with Arthur is unknown.

Stirling Castle is visible for many miles in every direction, sitting on a high volcanic rock it rivals even Edinburgh Castle's for sheer grandness. Beneath the castle is King’s Park, once a royal hunting forest, now open space. Within the Park is an ancient grassy mound known as the King’s Knot, shaped into its current form around 1620. Tradition claims that King Arthur's Round Table was located in this vicinity. In 2011 archaeologists from Glasgow University located remains of a circular ditch and other earth works beneath the mound of the King's Knot.

Bwrdd Arthur (Arthur's Table), Anglesey, is an prehistoric hillfort with drystone wall ramparts, on a flat topped hill not far from the coast at Beaumaris, east of Red Wharf Bay. An atmospheric site but, again, the connection with Arthur is not known.

Bwrdd Arthur in Clwyd, Denbighshire, north-east Wales, is another 'Arthur's Table'. It is basically a rough circle of indentations in a rocky hillside. John Leland recorded 24 holes which a man could sit in.

In addition, there are many prehistoric megalithic sites, such as the cromlechs in Wales, where the capstone is often known as 'Arthur's Table'. The connection is unknown, however some believe it is evidence of a Bronze Age Arthur.

The Winchester Round Table

The Winchester Table
However, for all these 'landscape' Round Tables there is only one actual wooden table claiming to be such; for over 600 years an 18 foot diameter, legless table top known as King Arthur's Round Table has hung in the Great Hall of Winchester castle. Made of solid oak and painted into 24 green and white segments, each labelled with the name of a knight, the table is perhaps the most impressive piece of Arthuriana to be seen today.

Not that the table dates to Arthur's time of Post-Roman Britain, but it is witness to the belief in the legend over the centuries; from the late Middle Ages the table was accepted as the authentic original. Indeed Caxton promoted the table as such in his Preface to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and no doubt the table's presence influenced Malory who placed Arthur's court, Camelot, at Winchester.

Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to mention King Arthur founding an order of knighthood but he does not mention the Round Table. Expanding Geoffrey's 'chronicle' the Norman poet Robert Wace introduced the Round Table writing around 1155, claiming a Breton source. The English cleric Layamon then expanded on Wace's work, being the first to present the tales of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in English poetry.

Later, in Arthurian Romance, the Round Table develops a mystical meaning. The table is the successor to two tables that precede it; the Table of the Last Supper and the Table of the Holy Grail. Merlin has the table made for Uthyr, it is modelled on the world and the heavens. One seat always remains empty in the memory of Judas, the Perilous Seat, which can only be occupied by the knight who attains the Grail. The Table passed to Guinevere's father which comes to Arthur as her dowry. After Arthur's passing the Table is destroyed when Mark captures Camelot.

In 1976 the Round Table was taken down from the hall at Winchester and examined by a team of historians and scientists assembled by Martin Biddle. They determined that the history of the Table began during the reign of Edward I as the centrepiece of a tournament held at Winchester in 1290.

In 1344 Edward III announced he would re-found an Order of the Round Table for 300 knights. Yet following victory at Crécy in 1346 Edward abandoned the idea and announced he would form a more exclusive Order of the Garter, rewarding his loyal commanders at the battle. This Order, like the Table, has persisted through the centuries and today membership is limited to the Sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and no more than 24 members, or Companions.

The Great Hall, Winchester

In 1348 the legs of the Round Table where knocked off and the top hung on the wall at Winchester as a symbol of Edward III's interest in the chivalric idea of the Fellowship of the Round Table.

Nearly 200 years later Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch, exploited the Arthurian legend and accepted Malory's identification of Camelot with Winchester. He named his first son Arthur and had him baptised at Winchester. He was to reign as Arthur II but the Prince died young and his brother came to the throne as King Henry VIII, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Henry VIII had the Winchester table painted in segments of white and green, the Tudor colours, with places assigned to the principal knights and the king. A Tudor rose was painted in the middle of the table and an image of Henry himself inserted into King Arthur's position to reinforce his claim to a British imperium. Henry made further use of the figure of Arthur at Calais in 1520 and Winchester in 1522 to support his claim as arbiter of European power.

Henry's design was repainted in the 18th century, the scheme which we see at Winchester today.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Geoffrey Ashe, The Traveller's Guide to Arthurian Britain, Gothic Image, 1997.
Norris J Lacey, et al (editors), The Arthurian Handbook, Garland, Second Edition, 1997.
Martin Biddle, King Arthur's Round Table, Boydell Press, 2000.

* * *

No comments:

Post a Comment

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