Tag Archives: King Arthur

The Great Hall of Winchester Castle

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The Round Table, Great Hall, Winchester

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.

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Model of the Round Table, Great Hall, Winchester

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Model of the Round Table, Great Hall, Winchester

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.

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Queen Eleanor’s Garden, Great Hall, Winchester

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.

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Great Hall, Winchester

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.

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Great Hall, Wincester

The Great Hall is well worth a visit if you’re ever in Winchester.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Castle, Medieval Buildings, Thirteenth Century, Twelfth Century

Edward III and King Arthur

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From the time of Edward I English kings used the legends about King Arthur to bolster their claim to rule all the British Isles. Although Arthur was a British hero, by the thirteenth century he had come to symbolise the English, and the mythology was used, consciously or unconsciously, to unite Britons, Saxons and Normans. King Arthur represented many things: he was the ideal king, the ideal knight, the ideal husband and the ideal Christian.

The myths and legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were known all over Europe and were recorded very early in ‘romances’, long poems which are often regarded as the prototype of the novel. Even though Arthur was associated with Britain, works about him were written in many countries. Geoffrey of Monmouth was a twelfth-century cleric, from or based in Wales, whose book Historia Regium Britanniae contains a very early version of the Arthur stories. Later in the twelfth century, Chrétien de Troyes, who served at the court of Marie de France, Coutness of Champagne, wrote four complete and one incomplete romances about Arthur (Erec et Enide, Cligès, Yvain, Lancelot and Perceval). He is also credited with inventing the character of Lancelot. Another French poet of the late twelfth century, Robert de Boron wrote Josephe d’Arimathe about the Holy Grail, and Merlin. Around the same time Wolfram von Eschenbach was writing Parzival in Bavaria (probably), claiming that Chrétien de Troyes had got the story wrong. In the 1360s the Italian poet Boccaccio wrote a long poem about Arthur. Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt was written in England in the late fourteenth century by an unknown poet referred to either as ‘the Pearl poet’ or ‘the Gawain poet’. Possibly the best known version of the stories is Le Morte d’Arhur written by Sir Thomas Malory in the middle of the fifteenth century. Ironically, given the chivalrous nature of Arthur and his knights, Malory was a less than savoury character, being a thief and possibly a murderer. He changed sides during the Wars of the Roses and wrote down the stories while in prison.

Edward I was obsessed with Arthur, even taking his new bride to see Arthur’s tomb at Glastonbury.  He usurped the Arthurian mythology when he conquered Wales. To the Welsh Arthur was the British hero who would return to beat back the English, but Edward I used him to bolster his own legend and to demonstrate to the Welsh that Arthur wasn’t coming back.

His grandson, Edward III, was similarly obsessed. Edward venerated his grandfather, and this was probably why he was interested in Arthur, although, as we shall see, there were other reasons for him to pursue this interest. From boyhood Edward III studied the lives of great kings from the past in order to be a good king and these included King Arthur. He studied the histories about Arthur, rather than the romances. Even though Edward III probably did not read the romances himself, it’s probable that he either heard the stories read aloud or told as entertainment. Both his mother and his wife were fond of the romances.

After he had overthrown his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, in 1330 Edward III’s contemporaries began to talk of him as King Arthur returned, fulfilling the prophecies of Merlin. He, however, was careful to claim no more for himself than the rôle of Sir Lionel, which had been assigned to him by Mortimer during a tournament. In this he learned from Mortimer himself. Mortimer had made himself unpopular by (amongst other things) identifying himself with Arthur.

Mortimer’s family held that they, being descendants of the Welsh kings were also descendants of Arthur. In 1329 Mortimer played the part of King Arthur and Isabella played Guinevere at a tournament, while Edward, the king, was a mere knight, Lionel. Mortimer was clearly putting himself above the king and this was probably one of the many things that made Edward III feel threatened and led to his coup against his mother. Lionel could be understood to mean ‘little lion’ and Edward later used it as a reference to the lions on his standard.  He named his third son Lionel.

When Edward III came to found his order of chivalry in the 1340s, his original vision was that his band of knights should have a round table at Windsor. He even planned a round building to house it. It was Edward I who had ordered the construction of the Round Table which is now in Winchester Castle and Edward III was probably thinking of this when he ordered his own Round Table to be built. Although there is nothing specific in the way the Order of the Knights of the Garter was set up that refers to Arthur, the mere fact that Edward set up an order of chivalry with a small number of knights was enough to make his subjects see the comparison.

Other medieval monarchs used the mythology of Arthur to their own ends. Henry VII named his first son Arthur. Henry was Welsh and, like Mortimer, was claiming descent from King Arthur. He did this in order to legitimise not only his own reign, but that of his son. The use of Arthur as a name for the Prince of Wales is not limited to medieval times; the current Prince of Wales also has Arthur as one of his names, as does Prince William.

 

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Filed under Fourteenth Century