The Round Table is one of the most important components of Arthur’s Camelot. The Knights of the Round Table were men of honor, dignity and courage that protected damsels in distress, went to quests and battled for their country. During times of peace, knights did different activities such as hunting, jousting, and chivalry. The Knights of the Round Table were chosen to protect and defend their country and those in distress.
The Origin of the Round Table
There are different versions about the origin of the Round Table. The first one to mention it was Wace in his “Roman de Brut”, where he said that Arthur created the idea so none of his barons could claim priority over the other (to avoid quarrels and conflicts). Layamon adapted Wace’s version and added a dispute between Arthur’s lords, which was settled by a carpenter who created a table for 1,600 men. Wace and Layamon used the story-tellers of Breton for their sources, which could mean that the origins of the table could date back to Celtic times or even to the age of Arthur himself. Also, the companionship of the Round Table started to become commensurable to the orders of chivalry founded in Europe in the middle ages.
The Round Table has been linked to Christian religion too. In Robert de Borron’s poem Joseph d’Arimathie (c. 1200), the Grail was identified as the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper. Joseph was ordered to make a table to commemorate the Last Supper and to leave an empty place, to symbolize Judas’ seat. Said vacant place was called “the siege perilous” and was not to be occupied except by the “destined grail hero”. The grail theme became fully integrated in the Arthurian legend during the 13th century, and it was established that the Round Table (modeled like the Grail Table with the vacant place included) was created by Merlin for Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. The table came into possession of King Leodegran, and was given to Arthur by him when he married his daughter Guinevere. The admission to the companionship of the Round Table was only for the most valiant and honorable. The “siege perilous” was left for the knight who achieved the quest of the grail.
Was it Real?
Apparently, the Round Table is not a legend or the simple product of the imagination of writers. Some say that the Round Table was in fact real. A round table hangs in the hall of Winchester Castle in England. It was constructed in the late years of 13th century, maybe at the order of king Henry III, whom was considering the revival of the Round Table as an order of chivalry. Evidently, the table is a copy of the one portrayed in the legend. The idea of reviving the knights of the table was dropped and did not advance. The Order of Garter was created instead, but the table remained.
The legend says the knights would gather before battle at the round table to receive instructions from their King. But historians believe that more than it being a piece of furniture, it was a vast wood and stone structure which allowed more than 1,000 of his followers to gather. According to British historian Chris Gidlow, the famous table was no table at all.
Some researchers explored the legend of Arthur and they believe that the fortitude of Camelot was built on the site of a discovered Roman amphitheater in Chester, England. They claim “that Camelot more being a purpose built castle, it would have been housed in a structure already built and left over by the Romans.” Gidlow claims that the circular interior of the amphitheater is where the knights convened. “The first accounts of the Round Table show that it was nothing like a dining table but was a venue for upwards of 1,000 people at a time,” said Gidlow. The legend of Arthur has been the main subject of historical debates in many occasions. Arthur is linked to 12 major battles in the course of 40 years and one of his major victories took place in Chester. “We know that one of Arthur’s two main battles was fought at a town referred to as the City of Legions. There were only two places with this title. One was St Albans but the location of the other has remained a mystery.”
Researchers discovered an execution stone and a wooden memorial to Christian martyrs, so they suggest that the missing city that was the seat of Arthur’s court is Chester. Gidlow said that Arthur might have reinforced the building’s 40-foot walls to create a dignified and imposing base. The king’s regional noblemen would have sat in the central arena’s front row, with lower-ranked subjects in the outer stone benches. “In the 6th Century, a monk named Gildas, who wrote the earliest account of Arthur’s life, referred both to the City of the Legions and to a martyr’s shrine within it,” he explained. “That’s the clincher. The discovery of the shrine within the amphitheater means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court–and his legendary Round Table.”
It is a bit early to affirm the realness of the Round Table, as the discovery made in Chester is recent, but whether it was real or not, something about the table is to be taken for sure: it symbolizes the change of paradigms during the middle ages. They were a difficult period to live in, there was barbarian hordes, wars, plague, famine and many other things. The normal way to get something was to take it by force. There was little to no value for the lives of individuals without power. Then, the development of chivalry played a role in shifting the belief systems of people. The Round Table shifted the power from just the king who gave all the orders. In that table everyone had equal say. Sure, the king was still the king, and the knights were still knights, but the shift was to the belief in the worth of the individual regardless if he held land or weapons.
Jason is the editor-in-chief of ArthurLegends.com and the primary author of the Arthurian Shared Universe. He has a deep love of British history and mythology, especially relating to Celtic and Arthurian traditions (obviously). He spends most of his days in made-up worlds.