The Great Hall and The Round Table

The Great Hall and The Round Table

No sooner had William the Conqueror been crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066, he was ordering castles to be built all over the country to defend his newly won territory – and Winchester, England’s de facto capital, was one of the first on his list.

Under these circumstances you would think, wouldn’t you, that Winchester would have been razed to the ground, but the truth was, that until the new King could set up his headquarters in London then Winchester still had an important part to play.

William’s Castle was built over the top of the Roman fort that was built to protect Venta Bulgarum, and for over a hundred years after the conquest England was ruled from Winchester Castle.

Henry II, the first Plantagenet king, built a stone keep to house the royal treasury and the Domesday Book, and Henry III, who was born at Winchester Castle and only 9 years old when he became king in 1216, added the Great Hall between 1222 and 1235.

Entrance to the Great Hall

The castle was used as a royal residence right up until the time Elizabeth I came to the throne at which time the Great Hall was converted into a court.

On 17th November 1603 Sir Walter Raleigh and others were charged with attempting to overthrow King James I. They were found guilty and sentenced to death. Outside, on Castle Green, scaffolds were erected, but the ‘conspirators’ were reprieved at the last minute.

In 1685 after the failed Monmouth Rebellion, it was used by Judge Jeffreys for the first trials of his infamous Bloody Assizes.

The Great Hall looking east
The Great Hall looking east

The Great Hall is the only real tangible part of the castle left to see. It is 33.8m (111ft) long and 16.7m (55ft) wide, with 2 rows of Purbeck marble columns separating the Hall into a nave and two aisles. It would be worth coming to visit this Grade I listed building for its proven historic connections alone, but I suspect most people come here to see ‘King Arthur’s Round Table’ more than anything else.

On the west wall hangs this reminder of England’s mysterious Dark Ages.

The period of English history between the Roman occupation and the Norman Conquest is generally known as the Anglo-Saxon period, but for large parts of it not much is known.

The original Celtic tribes that were here before the Romans came hadn’t completely disappeared, and one of those tribes were ‘The Britons’. The history of this period in time is tantalizing. On the one hand there’s some historical evidence, albeit sketchy, but it was also a period of time that was full of myths, legends, and folklore – and there’s no better example of this than the legend of King Arthur.

Whether King Arthur was real or not has been debated for centuries, but the reality is probably somewhere in between. By that I mean that it was more than likely that Arthur was King of the Britons, but the romance surrounding his life is obviously highly exaggerated.

Taking those mythical extremes to one side for a moment, it sounds very plausible that Arthur was every bit a real legend in his own lifetime, in much the same way that Alfred the Great was towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Round Table
The Round Table

So, were Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table real or not? I’m definitely no historian, but like most of us, I would like to think that Arthur’s age of chivalry was not imaginary.

Many books have been written about the subject, but most of the information comes from just one book – Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’. Written in the 15th century, long after Arthur’s supposed lifetime, Malory concluded that Arthur’s ‘Camelot’ was here at Winchester, and one of the main reasons for that was ‘The Round Table’ that hangs in the Great Hall.

It was believed at the time that it originated from the time of King Arthur during the 6th century, but more modern scientific investigation dates it to the 13th century, and it’s more than likely that it was made in the reign of King Edward I when chivalry was at the height of its popularity.

In 1976 the table was taken down from the wall showing that there were holes where table legs would have been. It is 5.5m (18ft) in diameter and weighs 1200kg (1¼ tons).

The painting on the table is dated to the early 16th century (and obviously restored over the years) and is credited to Henry VIII. It shows King Arthur with the names of his 24 knights around the table, but also, tellingly, the red and white Tudor rose.

I’ve also read that the original painting of King Arthur had an uncanny resemblance to Henry VIII himself who believed that the Tudors were direct descendants of King Arthur.

No wonder they were known as the Dark Ages, and in a way, I hope we never ever find out the real truth: The tales of King Arthur are best left alone if you ask me.

The Tudor Rose
The Tudor Rose

The Great Hall also includes a museum and the small, but delightful Queen Eleanor’s Garden, and as of May 2019 you can see all of this for the princely sum of just £3.

The original South Entrance and Queen Eleanor's Garden
The original South Entrance and Queen Eleanor's Garden
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22 thoughts on “The Great Hall and The Round Table

  1. toonsarah

    More from one of my favourite cities – thank you 🙂 Mind you, last time I was in the Great Hall to see the Round Table (probably in 1976!) I don’t think there was any charge made 😉

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      There wasn’t when I went in there last year either, but I suppose under current circumstances, it’s not surprising.

      Reply
  2. Stuart Templeton

    A really interesting post Malcolm. I’d love to see that round table – I know it’s not the actual one but it’s close enough.

    I think the truth about King Arthur was probably somewhere in the middle. He was probably a local warlord or suchlike on the edge of Wales – there’s generally a grain of truth in every story.

    Reply
  3. TheRamblingWombat

    Another informative and really interesting review. I have visited Winchester once .. When I worked in Belfast one of my clients was based in Winchester and going there was fun though we didn’t see much (any) of Winchester . The client picked us up from hotel at about 10 each day .. we went to office in Winchester .. chatted about anything other than work for an hour or so then headed of to a different country pub for a boozy lunch each day … and he’d drop us back at hotel about 3 ! Guess they don’t do audits like that any more lol. I would actually love to visit Winchester for a proper visit. There is much to be seen there and an Aussie guy I worked with in PNG has now lived there for many years. Would be nice to catch up with him again.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thanks for your kind comments again Albert. Winchester, as you know is an easy train ride out of London Waterloo, so maybe you could pay a visit next time you’re up ‘The Smoke’.

      Reply
  4. Alli Templeton

    You must have read my mind again, Malc, because I’ve been thinking about going down to Winchester a lot recently, to see the Great Hall and Round Table and the places covered in your recent Winchester piece. So you can imagine how amazed I was to see your latest post! Wow – how weird is that?! Of course, it’s been great to read about it and to see your excellent photos – they give a really good feel of what to expect. I’m looking forward to seeing the Round Table, especially as it was made in Edward Ist’s time, and it’ll be so good to go into a perfectly intact medieval great hall.

    I didn’t know the later history of the castle, so that was good to learn. And I doubt you’ll be surprised to know that King Arthur is one of my biggest superheroes, and I believe there’s at least a grain of truth in all these legends. So thanks for another thoroughly enjoyable post, and I’ll be heading for Winchester soon…

    And a quick P.S. Maddie had her first sailing lesson yesterday. It turns out she’s pretty good and is a bit of a ‘natural’. It was a bit of a milestone in her life – I was almost in tears and she was grinning as widely as when she was on the Victory. And since then, the nag factor to take her to the SS Great Britain has gone up a gear, so it may be before July that we go! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      It seems like telepathy doesn’t it? In reality it’s just me trying to bring some order into my chaotic system of sorting photos and writing blogs. It’s just another piece of the jigsaw really 🙂
      It’s good to hear that you intend making another visit to Winchester. For such a small place it has so much to offer, and one of my favourite cities in the south of England.

      So Maddie is now another pirate in the making, good for her. What with Stuart’s Ratmobile you’ll soon be able to make a film – ‘Planes, Boats and Automobiles’ 🙂 Let’s hope she enjoys the SS Great Britain as much as the Victory. Thanks for checking out my latest piece of the jigsaw. I’ve still got a lot of pieces left – which reminds me, you can tell Maddie that I’ve got a real Spanish ‘Piece of Eight’ that I have in front of me right now.

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        Oh my goodness, she’d be awestruck by a real Piece of Eight! And I’ll bear the film idea in mind… sounds like a good one!

        I’ll let you know when we’re heading off to the SS Great Britain. I’ll have to fit it in around all the revision I’ve got to do now for the dreaded exam, but I’ll definitely do it. It’ll be a bit of light relief. 🙂

        Reply
        1. Malc Post author

          What is your next exam and when is it? I’ll need to get the drinks in ready 🙂 – and yes, please do let me know when you’re off to see the SS Great Britain. How are you getting there by the way?

          Reply
          1. Alli Templeton

            My dreaded end of module exam is 14th June in the morning. 🙁 It’ll be Latin translations and grammar and an essay or two on Augustan literature that we’ve also been studying. I hate exams, they’re a very poor way to assess someone’s ability with big time constraints and such a pressured environment, so no-one does as well in exams. It hardly lends itself to creative thinking. It’s this time of year when I start thinking ‘why am I doing this to myself?’. So yes, good idea to get drinks ready – if only to drown my sorrows!

            I was thinking I’ll probably drive to Bristol for the SS Great Britain. Not sure how long it’ll take to get there from here though. I’ll probably take her one Friday before my exam, and I’m looking at the moment. Fingers crossed it won’t be long. She wants to climb the rigging, and she’s asked if I’ll do it with her – that’ll be great for my vertigo! 🙂

            Reply
            1. Malc Post author

              I have every confidence that you’ll pass. It’s probably a good idea to do something different to take your mind off of it for a while, and what better than taking your daughter to see the SS Great Britain. As for the rigging, best of luck with that 🙂

              For practical purposes, I can tell you that it’s pretty easy to get to the attraction by car and there’s plenty of parking. If by any chance you were to come by train there’s a ferry that runs from the railway station right to the SS Great Britain and a great opportunity to see a bit of the city along the way.

              Reply
              1. Alli Templeton

                Thanks Malc, I’m glad you have confidence in me – more than I have when it comes to exams. I’ve got my final tutorial in London on Saturday and then it’s hard into revision. Eeeek.

                I’m planning on a couple of breaks, hopefully one to go to a Wars of the Roses conference in Glastonbury as well. Thanks for the travel info, that’ll help with the plans. 🙂

                Reply
                1. Malc Post author

                  You’ve certainly got a full life that’s for sure. I’ve had a fair few ales in Glastonbury over the years. At least you’ll be missing the Festival crowds, although to be fair it’s not in Glastonbury anyway is it?
                  Good luck with your revision. Presumably, your blogs are going to take a back seat for now.

                  Reply
                  1. Alli Templeton

                    I might have to go a bit quiet on the blogging front for a bit on the run-up to the exam, yes, but I’m hoping to at least keep ticking over.
                    Oh yes that’s a point – when is the Festival? I hope it’s not the same weekend. The conference is in the Town Hall in Glastonbury – I’ve only been there once but looking forward to going again. I thought you’d probably know it well… 🙂 Life is certainly full and busy just now – too busy sometimes. But at least it’s not dull, I couldn’t stand that. 🙂

                    Reply
                    1. Malc Post author

                      The festival is on from 26th-30th June which is located at Pilton (which is nearer to Shepton Mallet really)..

                      I won’t hold you up any more, but if you need more info that I can help with, you know where I am.

                    2. Alli Templeton

                      Oh good, that’s something then, the conference is at the start of June, although I can’t remember the date exactly. Thanks for your help, Malc, and catch up again soon. 🙂

              1. Alli Templeton

                ‘Tis fast indeed, but so is the Qashquai, and that’s what me and Maddie are going in. Poor old Ratty has to stay behind and your foot is needed with the rest of you at work… 😀

                Reply

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