During a recent trip to Winchester I visited what remains of its medieval castle. The castle was built at the highest point of the town, which was also the furthest point from the river. The only remnants of the castle these days are some stumps of walls, some vaults which are closed to the public, and the Great Hall.
You’ve probably come across the Great Hall in photographs, even if you didn’t know what it was. It’s best-known today for housing the Round Table and that’s what tourists pay to see. There’s a bit more to the Great Hall than that, but it’s what we’ll start with.
Edward I had the Round Table built, probably around 1290 for a banquet. He didn’t have it painted with the portrait of King Arthur and the names of the knights, though. The Tudor Rose in the middle of the table is a clue to the identity of the king who did have it painted: Henry VIII. King Arthur’s face was originally that of the young Henry, which must have been a bit confusing for him, since his older brother, who would have been king had he lived, was called Arthur. Over the years, various renovations have changed the features of King Arthur into those of an old man. It was only because X-rays were used during one of the more recent renovations that we have any idea of what King Arthur originally looked like. The Victorians, as is usually the case, were probably the guilty parties here.
The table is massive. It’s 18 feet in diameter and weighs 1 ton 4cwt. It was made of 121 separate pieces of oak and had 12 legs. When it was renovated in the 1970s, the wood was dated by means of dendrochronology and the youngest tree-ring they found was dated to 1219, suggesting that the trees used were felled no later than the second decade of the fourteenth century.
There’s a model of its original construction on display just outside the hall.
The castle itself was originally built by William the Conqueror at the end of the eleventh century. Henry III was born there in 1207 and it was he who had the Great Hall built. A fire during the reign of his son, Edward I damaged the royal apartments so badly that they were never repaired and the royal family thereafter stayed in the palace of the Bishop of Winchester whenever they visited.
The Great Hall was used as a courtroom from the reign of Henry III off and on until 1973. Famous trials that took place there included those of the Earl of Kent (a son of Edward I) in 1330 and Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603.
The Great Hall has other delights, not least a herber garden set out in a style that would have been familiar to Edward I’s queen, Eleanor, who brought a number of plants to England from her native Castile.
The Victorians tried hard with their renovation. This wall, where the Round Table was hung after it was no longer needed for its original purpose, is covered with the names of the parliamentary representatives for Hampshire from 1283 to 1868. For many years, possibly centuries, there was a medieval mappa mundi on this wall.
They also made an effort with the windows. Apparently the long walls of the hall were originally painted with heraldic devices. The Victorians put devices of kings, queens, bishops and others important to the history of Hampshire in the windows. Here’s the window with the devices of Edward III, his son Edward of Woodstock, and his great friend William Montacute.
The Great Hall is well worth a visit if you’re ever in Winchester.