Theories on The Round Table

The Round Table at Winchester. By Christophe.Finot (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], 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

  • 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?

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

Literary Sources of Arthurian Legend (Part 1)

Welcome back to our exciting adventure through the evolution of Arthurian legends. I see you’re a brave soul, since I didn’t scare you away with the historical sources. Now we move on to the literary sources. Even though this isn’t a complete list, it is the top 10 sources, so it’s going to take us two weeks to tackle them all. Fasten your seat belts, because here we go.

Y Gododdin – This bardic poem, written down in the ninth or tenth century, chronicles a battle around the year 600 between a group of Pictish warriors from the Gododdin (hence, the name) and the Angles. It contains one of the first known mentions of Arthur in literature in this line: “He brought down black crows to feed before the walls of the city, though he was no Arthur.” So the warrior hero of this poem was praised for being a great military man, but still he couldn’t live up to Arthur.

The Black Book of Carmarthen – The Black Book (so named for its binding) is a collection of poetry complied in the mid 13th century. It refers to Arthur, Myrdinn (Merlin) and many of the knights we know and love, calling Kay, Bedivere and Lancelot by early translations of their names.

The Mabinogion – This famous collection of Welsh myth and legend was written down in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, but comes from a much older, likely oral, tradition. It includes five stories set in or around Arthur’s court: Culhwch and Olwen, The Dream of Rhonabwy, Geraint Mab Erbin, Peredur son of Evrawc, and Owein. These stories are complex and much has been written about them, so if you want to know more, I suggest you read them, ask my friend Tyler Tichelaar, or Google the stories and commentaries on them. I don’t know them well enough to do them justice.

Geoffrey of Monmouth – Or as I like to call him “the grand-daddy of Arthurian legend.” Geoffrey’s works History of the Kings of Britain and Life of Merlin (written around 1136) are responsible for most of what we automatically think of when we think of King Arthur and his court. He claimed his History was translated from a source no one else ever saw, so it is considered a “pseudo history.” Geoffrey’s contributions to the legends include:

  • Tintagel as Arthur’s birthplace, as well as the story of Arthur’s conception by way of Merlin’s magical disguise of Uther into Goloris, Igraine’s husband
  • The name Caliburnus for Arthur’s sword (it started out as the Welsh Caledfwlch and went on to become Excalibur when the French translated it)
  • The introduction of Morgan as a healer, her nine sisters of Avalon, and details about Avalon
  • The story of Merlin and Vortigern with the tower and the red and white dragons
  • Merlin being responsible for relocating Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain
  • Merlin as advisor to Arthur, including his warning to Arthur about Guinevere’s betrayal
  • The hunting of the white hart
  • The concept of Arthur’s band of knights
  • Descriptions of medieval courts (feasting, ladies, hunts) that we associate with the legends, but are actually from times later in history than the historical Arthur would have lived

Wace – Wace was an Anglo-Norman poet whose Roman de Brut was based on Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain. He brought us the concept of the literal Round Table and it’s ideology of all men being equal around it, as well as idea of Arthur’s Knights of the Round being from all across Europe. (I can’t help but picture an early medieval United Nations.)

Next week we’ll cover the later medieval sources that helped shape the legends into what we know today.

So, what do you know about these sources? Have you read any of them? What surprised you most? What else do you want to know about them?