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.
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 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.
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 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.