Saturday, May 28, 2011

Winchester Round Table - The Mystery Unveild

More so than any other medieval monarch, King Edward I loved to travel. He travelled all around the Britain, as well as much of Europe and even the Holy Land.At first glance, therefore, his arrival in Winchester in 1287 might seem unremarkable. In actual fact, this was the occasion for a great chivalric festivity, long since forgotten, but which probably explains the creation of one of the most intriguing of all medieval artifacts - the Winchester Round Table, "King Arthur's Round Table". 

A giant disc of solid oak, 18 feet in diameter and over a ton in weight, it now hangs at the end of the Great Hall of what was once Winchester Castle.Obviously, the table has nothing to do with a real King Arthur (whisper it quietly - he never existed). It is scientifically proved that it was made in the second half of the 13th century, and thus most likely dates from the reign of Edward I (1272 - 1307).

Winchester Round Table illustration

A great gathering

The opinion is that the table is made in 1290, in connection with a two-day tournament that Edward staged in Winchester to celebrate the marriage of one of his daughters. A closer reading of the evidence suggest that the true context of the table's creation lies in the little-regarded royal visit of five years earlier, in September 1285. Then Edward was surrounded by almost all his earls and most of his greater barons, but almost non of his bishops. That could tells us that this was an exclusively secular assembly. Moreover, the unusual nature of the event finds powerful confirmation in the reliable words of contemporary chronicler. In his entry for 1285, the Worcester Annalist states laconically that "on the feast of the nativity of the Virgin the King gave arms to 44 knights at Winchester". In other words, Edward was involved in creating new knights, en masse, surrounded by the greatest military men in his realm. That kind of event was nothing new - even Edward himself was knighted by Alfonso X of Castile in 1254. In the case of Winchester ceremony, we know the names only of handful of those present, and none of these men are important enough to have been the focus of festivities. Possibly the occasion was contrived in order to honour Edward's 19-year-old nephew, John of Brittany, whose career on the tournament field appears to have begun around this point.
King Edward I

The King, however, clearly had other motives for organising a mass knighting in the autumn of 1285. Earlier in the year he had ordered that all men in his kingdom with lands worth more than 100 pounds a year should come before him to be knighted on 8 September - the same date on which the Winchester ceremony took place.this was quiet unusual. The reason for this was Edward's recent conquest of Wales. In a brief war he extinguished ruling dynasties in Wales, and the scale of victory was awesome. But it had inevitably led the King to place huge demands on his English subjects. Several times in the course of the conflict Edward had tried to compel men to take up arms.

Arthur's myth

The conquest of Wales also explains why the dubbing ceremony should assume an Arthurian air. In 13th century Arthur was immensely popular all over Europe, and nowhere more than in England. For the English the legendary king presented a peculiar problem because of his British origins - ethnically, the man that everyone admired so much was Welsh. In 1278, just months after the conclusion of his first war with Wales, the English king visited Glastonbury, and ceremoniously reburied the body that the local monks swore blind was that of Arthur. Similarly, in 1283, the conquered Welsh sought to placate their new overlord by presenting him with a trinket which they claimed was "Arthur's crown".

Edward, in short, was an Arthurian enthusiast, and for political reasons - because of the recent engagement with Wales - his enthusiasm was probably at the peak in 1285. On his return to London, the King celebrated his victory processing from the Tower of London (still decorated with the mouldering heads of the defeated Welsh princes) to Westminster Abbey, where he presented some of the religious relics he had liberated from Wales.
Knights of the Arthur's Round Table
He must have soon settled on Winchester, with its royal castle and resplendent great hall, as a suitable venue for the planned mass knighting. And it also seems very probable that, being in an Arthurian frame of mind, and keen to be regarded in the same light as legendary British king, Edward also let it be known that for this occasion he required special centrepiece. Most likely it was that summer that royal carpenters assembled in Winchester and began, on the King's instructions, to build him a round table.

A Few Facts about the Table

Great Hall at Winchester Castle
The Winchester Round Table was originally built to serve as a functional piece of furniture - that much is clear from the holes on its reverse side left by its 12 lost legs. When these were removed to transform it into a wall hanging is unclear, but it may have been as early as the mid-14th century. It is certainly displayed in that manner by the late 15th century. In the 16th century it was painted with its current decorative scheme, giving it the unfortunate appearance of a giant dartboard. It remained largely undisturbed for hundreds of years, no doubt because of its immense weight and size. In 1873, when the entrance hall was remodelled, was it moved from one end of the hall to the other. In the 1970's, however, a restoration of the hall meant that the table had to be moved again, allowing for a thorough scientific analysis under the direction of Martin Biddle. It was this analysis that led to the conclusion that it had been made in the reign of King Edward I.

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