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.
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 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?
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
The Origin of the Round Table