The legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table is unarguably one of the most popular in English history. The mystical stories have captured the imaginations of generations, and are only made more intriguing by the uncertainty of historians over the truth behind the myth.
Tales of the fifth-sixth century King are thought to have been developed in the Middle Ages by writers and poets, attracted by the romance of the almost undocumented Dark ages. They include both elements of fantasy and plausibility; brave knights, wizards, family issues (well worthy of Jeremy Kyle), the unbreakable sword Excalibur and the quest for the Holy Grail. Although none of these things can be proved, there is one remarkable object that excites the imagination and highlights the impact of the legend on Ancient England: The Round Table.
This is located in Winchester’s Great Hall, the only remaining part of Winchester Castle, built between 1222 and 1235 by Henry III. Although legend says that the table was that used by Arthur and his knights, it has been dated back to around 1290, probably commissioned by Edward I to celebrate his daughter’s betrothal.
Despite the unlikelihood that King Arthur really did use this table, it still holds a feeling of intrigue and mystique. Although it is roughly 725 years old, it is incredibly solid at 5.5m across, 7.5cm thick and weighing in at 1.2 tonnes (1200kg) – about the same as a Honda Civic or an adult black rhino.
It is made from English Oak, and in the 16th Century Henry VIII had it painted with the Tudor rose, a portrait of himself as King Arthur, and 24 spaces for each of the Knights of the Round Table, so whatever its origins it is steeped in English history. It is thought to have been hung on the wall in the Great Hall since at least 1540, possibly since 1348, but prior to that it needed twelve legs and a central support to hold it up.
There are other sites associated with the legendary King Arthur across the South of England. Tintagel in Cornwall is said to have been Arthur’s birthplace, and Camelot Castle was supposedly sited near to Glastonbury in Somerset. Indeed, a 1960’s archaeological investigation revealed that during the sixth century, over Arthur’s alleged reign, an old Iron Age camp was refortified with extensive wood and earth defences, alongside which the foundations of a large timber hall were discovered, close to Glastonbury Tor. According to legend, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall marks the place where Arthur battled a giant and Stonehenge is said to have been moved by Merlin from Ireland to its current position near Salisbury, at the request of Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon. Arthur is supposedly buried in Glastonbury Abbey.
King Arthur is not to be confused with King Alfred the Great, who ruled the kingdom of Wessex (“West Saxons”) and chose Winchester as his capital in 871AD, as well as famously burning the cakes. The King Alfred statue stands proudly at the very bottom of the high street, dressed in battle gear with sword held high.
Ultimately, the legend of the Knights of the Round Table continues to capture our imaginations. To think that, according to the tales, the likes of King Arthur, Merlin, Sir Lancelot and Galahad, may have congregated around such a table is mystifying, and to feel transported back to the time of castles, knights and quests still incites a child-like wonder in many. I recommend reading the tales of King Arthur and the Round Table to learn more about our area’s local mythology and to enjoy the sense of escapism that comes with a good story.
If you would like to see the Round Table the Great Hall is open to the public and it houses the table, a small but interesting exhibition on Winchester Castle, a medieval style garden and a gift shop. Entry is free but donations are welcome, and check on the website if you are planning a visit because it occasionally closes for functions and events. It is situated at the very top of the high street, roughly a ten minute walk from the train station.