Theories on The Round Table

The Round Table at Winchester. By Christophe.Finot (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s one of the most recognizable symbols of Arthurian legend, but it wasn’t part of the original tale. The Round Table as we know it came into Arthurian legend in the late 12th century once French writers and translators got involved in the story. Wace and Layamon were the first to mention a round table at which Arthur and all of his knights sat equally. It was Malory who connected Guinevere and Merlin to the Round Table, Guinevere in bringing it to Arthur as part of her dowry and Merlin in crafting it at Uther’s request. It was also Malory who gave us the idea of each knight’s name being written in gold at his place. Depending on whose story you read, the table could seat anywhere between 13 and 1,600 knights.

The famous Round Table in Winchester Castle in Wessex, which still hangs there today, was long ago proven a fraud. Tests show that the solid oak table, which is 18 feet in diameter and weighs one and a quarter tons, was made during the reign of Edward I, sometime in the late 13th century.  Edward was a great Arthurian enthusiast, who also claimed to have acquired the crown of King Arthur from the Welsh. What we see today is the result of repainting in 1516 and restoration after 1645.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, engraving from the Middle Ages. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Many people believe that although the Round Table was a relatively late addition to the stories that demonstrates the ideals of Medieval chivalry, it harkens back, at least symbolically, to an earlier tradition. According to David Day, the idea of all the knights being equal is part of an oral tradition that predates the writing of the tales. He gives as one example the Fiana of the second century, a mounted group of warriors similar to the Knights of the Round. He also mentions that in late Roman Britain, the Dux Bellorum gathered independent Roman chieftains around him. Although they looked to him as their leader in war, in all other ways, they were addressed as equals.

So if the Round Table isn’t a literal table, what could it be? Theories abound. Here are some of the most popular:

A Roman Amphitheatre

  • Leslie Alcock argues that the supposed Round Table at Caerleon was really a Roman amphitheatre.
  • There is another amphitheatre in Chester that is thought by some to be the origins of the Round Table.

A Henge of Stones

  • Alcock also states that the neolithic henge near Penrith associated with the table was an ancient ritual site.
  • Some people have suggested that the Round Table is actually Stonehenge, or that since Merlin is credited with being involved with both, that the two stories at least have a common origin.

A Parcel of Land

  • Norma Lorre Goodrich names the Round Table as an area of land in Stirlingshire that was a key political site because whoever had control of it had access to the eastern Highlands. She says that Guinevere was a Pict and brought the Round Table lands to Arthur in her dowry.

A Chapel or Building to House the Holy Grail

  • Goodrich also refers to a building on this land in Stirling. She describes the Round Table building as “a tabled rotunda constructed on a stone table or foundation” (Guinevere, 49; King Arthur 284-292).

A Tradition Begun by Christ

  • Britainna.com makes an uncited reference to the Round Table coming from a story recorded by St. Luke that Christ and his apostles sat at a round table for the Last Supper. This is a theory I’ve never heard before, but it does raise interesting possible ties to the Holy Grail.

A Constellation

  • A constellation made from the rotation of the Plough around the Pole star is another theory. This makes sense in an odd sort of way, considering the Druids were known for their skills in astronomy.

In the end, we don’t know, and may never know, the true identity of the Round Table. But as on of the most recognizable and enduring symbols of King Arthur’s court, it likely will continue to inspire those who seek equality for generations to come.

What about you? What theories have you heard about the Round Table? Which ones do you believe?

Sources:
Alcock, Leslie. King Arthur’s Britain
David Day, The Search for King Arthur
John Matthews, King Arthur: Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero

Norma Lorre Goodrich, King Arthur
Norma Lorre Goodrich, Guinevere
http://www.britannia.com/history/arthur/rtable.html
The Origin of the Round Table

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4 thoughts on “Theories on The Round Table

  1. There is a theory that Wace may have got the story from the Bretons. I can’t recall whose theory it is at the moment but will look into it.

  2. Great article, Nicole. I had never thought to research when the Round Table became part of the legends. One additional interesting piece of information is that when you mention the Round Table at Winchester was painted in 1516, that’s when Henry VIII had King Arthur’s image painted on it but with his face, to suggest a family likeness and further Tudor claims to be descended from King Arthur. You can read more about the Tudor claims and the Round Table at my own blog as well: http://childrenofarthur.wordpress.com/2011/09/24/king-arthur-and-his-possible-tudor-descendants/

    Keep writing the great blog posts!

    • Thanks for the compliment, Tyler. I hadn’t heard that about Henry VIII, but from what I do know about him, that fits his personality perfectly! (i’m sure I read it in your book, but that part obviously didn’t stick in my head. You know I was more drawn to the mythological stuff.) And thanks for the link to your blog. The Renassiance isn’t a time period I know well, so learning more about Henry VII and his Arthurian connections is a welcome addition to my knowledge base.

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