One of the most symbolic images we all enjoy from King Arthur’s time is his Round Table. A medieval replica of it hangs on a wall in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. Winchester is an hour’s train ride south from today’s British capital, London, but for a hundred years, this southern city was England’s seat of government. The Norman king, William the Conqueror, straight from France in 1066, preferred Winchester’s easy access to his homeland and its milder climate. And the Norman kings who followed him were caught up in the resurgence of all things Arthurian when the French writer Chretin de Troyes (1130-1191) re-imagined the legends of King Arthur and popularised them in French-speaking courts. Winchester was a French-speaking court. But it wasn’t until the first Norman king with an English name Edward 1 (1239-1307) was there an Arthurian “enthusiast” on the throne. He visited Glastonbury and dug up Arthur’s and Guinevere’s alleged grave and held “Round Table” events. Edward gave his daughter a Round Table as a wedding gift at his daughter's marriage held in Winchester. Why would any father do that? To answer that, we must return to an Arthurian legend, which runs something like this.
When Arthur chose his beautiful Welsh bride Guinevere, she came with a dowry that included a massive round table. Merlin crafted the table at the bidding of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. Don’t ask why it was in her dowry because we don’t know unless Arthur demanded it as part of her Bride Price. It was enormous; it seated a hundred comfortably and was built to accommodate the petty kings of Britain who all wanted to sit at the head of the long board table. Merlin knew that a roundtable “round in the likeness of the world” had no seat of honour where one king or knight would be higher in favour than the rest. Other legends from medieval times suggest that the Round Table was only for twelve knights and one king and that it was a replica of the table used at the Last Supper with one seat vacant symbolising the one used by Judas. Nevertheless, Merlin prophesised that it would be filled in due course. This seat, called the Siege Perilous, (French for Dangerous Chair) on which none but the purest knight could sit because others would perish by sitting there, had its warning title inscribed on its back. But the stories tell how two very different knights once sat in it: Percival, who was known as the Perfect Fool perhaps because of his naivety and Galahad, the youngest knight, known for his purity and his ferocity in battle. Maybe we can assume neither of these two knights could read the warning sign on the back of the chair.
The Fellowship of the Round Table, where every knight irrespective of his birth found equal treatment, led to a sworn code of behaviour. Again, crafted by Merlin it obliged every knight to help anyone in distress who approached the Table and appealed for their help provided they had a fair and honest request.
In the Great Hall of Winchester in Hampshire, the thousand-year-old top of a Round Table carved from oak is displayed on a wall for the public view. It is twenty feet in diameter and weighs over 2600 pounds. No one pretends that it is that used by King Arthur, but it is of great symbolic interest, anyway. The Tudor family of Welsh kings claimed direct descent from King Arthur. Henry Tudor, later Henry the Eighth, another Arthur enthusiast, was as a young man, rumoured to be the spitting image of the red-haired Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father. He redecorated the Round Table in Tudor green and gold. He put the Tudor Rose at its centre and around the rim of the table inscribed the names of all the knights. The image of the enthroned King Arthur was repainted to bear Henry’s visage. Henry, like many other European kings and queens, would appropriate any mystique they could to be associated with this once and future king.
When I visited the Round Table in May, there were hundreds of school children, some French-speaking, all enchanted with their guide’s story of Arthur and his Table and thrilled with their plastic swords and chainmail hoods. The legend will be safe with them.