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A Discussion of the Origins of King Arthur's Round Table
By David Nash Ford

THE
ROUND TABLE

of King Arthur's Court

The Tradition: King Arthur's famous Round Table was first mentioned in about 1155, in Wace's "Roman de Brut," a rewrite of the first popular Arthurian novel, Geoffrey of Monmouth's "History of the Kings of Britain". Wace explains that the King installed the the table in order to prevent quarrels over seating precedence, as a circular table had no head. Later writers add that there had actually been brawls at Court over the matter.

Supplementary information, provided by De Boron and the Vulgate Cycle, makes Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, responsible for the actual construction of the table, after hearing Merlin's tales of St. Joseph of Arimathea and the Grail Table. He gave it to King Leodegrance of Cameliard and, upon Arthur's marriage to the latter's daughter, Guinevere, it became their wedding present. Arthur simply established the Order of Knighthood which met there.

Notable amongst the seats around the table was the 'Siege Perilous,' placed there by Merlin as an aspiration for those who would be the most pure of knights.

Size and Appearance: The number of knights which the table could seat is highly disputed. Anything for over about twenty-five sitters would be quite unwieldy. This is the number of places set on the well-known Winchester Round Table and this is eighteen feet in diameter! The names were said to have been written by Merlin in magical gold paint which miraculously changed along with the occupants.

Some artists have depicted the table as a ring with a hollow centre, thus allowing it to be easily put together from several segments. Broul indicates that it could be rotated.

Possible Origins: The Round Table was, no doubt, eagerly adopted by medieval writers of Arthurian Romance because of the tradition, recorded by St. Luke, that Christ and the Apostles sat at a circular table during the Last Supper. Its origins, however, are probably much older.

Celtic warriors often met in circles, perhaps for the very reasons indicated in the Arthurian stories. Fights over positioning were apparently commonplace, as recorded in near contemporary Irish tales. But the table as an object, as opposed to a mere seating arrangement, is a persistent theme.

Candidates: Apart from the famous Round Table on display in the great hall of Winchester Castle, travellers around the country will find "Arthur's Round Table" still pointed out at various locations in the British landscape:

  • Arthur's Round Table Stone Circle, Mayburgh (Cumberland)
  • Arthur's Table, Caerleon (Monmouthshire)
  • Bwrdd Arthur, Llanddona (Anglesey)
  • King's Knot, Stirling (Stirlingshire)
  • Pen y Fan, Brecon (Brecheiniog)

Perhaps these were all ancient meeting places for post-Roman Royal councils in scattered Celtic kingdoms. The most intriguing is 'Arthur's Table' at Caerleon: a local name for the vast amphitheatre at the old Roman town. Even when ruinous, this formed a grass-covered oval hollow, ideal for gatherings in what is, traditionally, a strongly Arthurian region.

 


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